by Usha Alexander
[This is the eleventh in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]
In the beginning, the god of the Biblical creation myths makes the Earth and sky. Over the next several days, he makes the sun, moon, and stars, grasses and fruit trees, most of the animals, and rain. Then, scooping up a bit of fresh mud, he molds a being who looks much like himself, a man, and into this homunculus he breathes life. As a dwelling place for this newborn Adam, he plants a lavishly abundant garden, filling it with beautiful and delicious plants. The creator tells Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Then, realizing that Adam might feel lonely, the deity gives him cattle, fowl, and all the “beasts of the field.” Yet none of these quite seems a suitable companion, so from one of Adam’s ribs, god fashions a woman.
Quite pleased with his handiwork, the divinity instructs his new humans on how to live. He tells them they must increase their population. They must also replenish the Earth, and in doing so, subdue it and exercise dominion over all its living things. The almighty then leaves the newlyweds alone to get on with their business of eating, procreating, replenishing, and dominating, which they apparently take to just fine. Indeed, neither of the pair has any memorable comment on their situation, until the day Serpent piques Eve’s curiosity, telling her that if she and Adam were to eat from the one forbidden tree, rather than die, “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Now Eve takes new notice of this tree, understanding that it could make her “wise.” Enticed, she picks a fruit and munches it. Whatever she discovers then—new knowledge or wisdom or just fine flavor—is simply too good not to share with her husband and, despite their creator’s clear injunction to him, Adam follows his wife’s lead. Yet soon the hapless couple realize that this new state they find themselves in—their eyes having been opened—is indeed problematic. They seem to have transgressed some cosmic order and find themselves possessed now of a discomfiting self-awareness, of moral judgments and political motives, just like the god who made them—and distinctly unlike the beasts they lived among.
When their creator finds out what they’ve done, he is homicidally enraged. He remarks (to his fellow gods…?), “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” For Serpent’s part in this transgression, the creator curses him to be forevermore the enemy of Eve and her progeny. He then condemns Eve, saying, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” To Adam, he says, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” With that, he drives them out of the provident garden he’d originally set out for them, forever barring their return, condemning them to a life of tilling and toiling for their subsistence. This was now our human destiny.
Many aspects of the Genesis story are striking, not least its seeming contradictions, large and small; these may be partly due to its having been an amalgam of older oral histories (as myths tend to be), in this case possibly inherited from the diverse peoples who were absorbed into the expanding agricultural civilization that was coming to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean region during the mid-Holocene. I find the story intriguing also because it seems to recall, however dimly, that there was a time before the advent of agriculture. In that before-time, it hints, all manner of delightsome foods had been abundant, freely available for the taking; the inhabitants of this divinely resplendent garden had only to command and nurture it and raise their kids. But by the time this story is being recounted by the presumed descendants of Adam and Eve, those idyllic days have tragically ended: the garden of Eden is beyond reach; the ground is cursed; food can now be procured only by tilling fields of grain for their bread, through sweat and hardship. It seems surprising, from our modern vantage, that in this myth-memory the livelihood of agriculture comes as a punishment, as the retraction of god’s gift of abundance and a sharpening of patriarchal norms.
Today, we generally recall this same cultural milestone as the Agricultural Revolution: the moment our species moved on from our presumedly uncivilized, nomadic lives to begin our story of Human Progress. But it would seem that in the ancient Levant, from whence this story hails, what we see as Progress was clearly imagined as a diminishment from a more privileged and comfortable condition. And though theologians still often refer to “man’s fall from grace” as defining our human condition, the plain meaning of the words no longer truly resonates with our dominant narratives and cultural expectations of the human story as one of steady advancement from benighted beginnings.
Myths and legends always rework older, established narratives, motifs, and themes, tapping into what’s perceived as timeless wisdom or knowledge. They can be inspired or inflected by ideas and events reaching back many millennia, even as they reflect and edify or legitimate changing priorities, practices, power structures, and beliefs. Much as several elements in the Biblical Flood story long predate the Old Testament, it’s possible that the Genesis creation story also contains fragments and strands of cultural inheritance that figured large in the lives of the peoples who had inhabited the forests and shifting riverine grasslands of the Eastern Mediterranean region during the earlier millennia of the Holocene, a time when nomadic livelihoods were transitioning toward increasing sedentism, at first in strategic and flexible stops and starts, but ultimately culminating in complete dependence upon fixed-field agriculture supporting urban centers. Did that generous and unspoiled garden that fed Adam and Eve invoke for its earliest storytellers a misty, hagiographic cultural recollection of the relative freedom and effortlessness of pre-agricultural life? Did it represent an inherited nostalgia for what were to them already ancient times, during which their foraging ancestors were accumulating, by slow degrees, the paradigm-shifting, dangerous knowledge that nudged them away from ease and plenitude, toward the heavy yoke of agriculture? As they experimented with their first simple settlements of stone and then, millennia later, of brick; as they intentionally broadcast a few handfuls of wild seeds and then, millennia later, plowed their first fields, had their understanding of themselves and their place in the world been shifting—were their eyes being opened? Was this newfound self-regard the Original Sin that led to the death of Eden? Was this story a foggy recognition by those ancient tellers of what they had lost in giving up their intimate knowledge of the non-human world—especially, their sense of humankind as belonging to a reciprocal web of life, beholden to the Earth-system as they understood it—in order to adopt a new sense of themselves as being different from and above all other life, singular and godlike?
From Foragers to Peasants and Slaves: The Fall of Man?
Foragers, it must be stressed, generally know what they are doing. Their use of resources is by necessity flexible, balanced, resilient, and demanding of forethought, intention, and a sophisticated and intimate knowledge of a broad range of environments, ecosystem dependencies, and animal behaviors. They strategically shape the land to benefit themselves, but they strive to remain within its sustainable limits. Foragers know that if they overtax their lands, without investing in compensatory and regenerative practices, the land will ultimately bring forth less of everything to support them. This isn’t to suggest that they have always succeeded at sustainability at every moment. Especially when entering new ecosystems or encountering unfamiliar species, they surely faltered and even failed. We know of failed forager colonies and practices, and there are doubtlessly more we don’t know of, buried under ancient sands and swamps. But the many societies that managed to flourish for thousands of years did so only because they figured out a workable balance. As they experimented with new subsistence techniques and cultural practices, successful societies took heed of the feedback they got from the land. Unless they encountered extraordinary conditions (like wildly fecund bottomlands and a warm, stable climate) or discovered “game-changing” technologies (like petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides) that delay the consequences of overexploitation by many generations or even centuries, foragers could learn and respond to unintended consequences before they were locked into irreversible dependency on any particular unsustainable practices.
So long as their population densities remained very low, compared to the carrying capacity of the land, it may have made little difference how much foragers took from their environments. But they may have discovered the land’s limits if their populations began to swell—which can happen during a prolonged period of sedentism, for instance—or when the climate suddenly and drastically fluctuated, even for just one or two years, as in the event of a major volcanic explosion. Newly sedentary forager-farmers would’ve understood how precarious their situation was, how great a gamble it was to lose their resilience by depending too heavily upon their few cultivated plants or animals. They would notice, too, that too much planting or grazing displaces other plants and animals, leaving their own crop more vulnerable to pests and reducing the availability of other needed resources. For example, cutting or burning back forests too far, to expand grasslands for planting or grazing, may reduce access to nut trees, honeybee hives, medicinal plants, firewood, and other forest products; likewise, overgrazing a grassland increases erosion and turns it to dust, leaving it unproductive for further grazing, planting, or foraging. And when signs of such overexploitation appeared, foraging villagers who retained their knowledge of a broader spectrum of subsistence strategies across other environments, might disperse and rely on some greater degree of nomadism, eventually moving their village elsewhere as conditions allowed, as they or their elders had done before, adjusting their behaviors and patterns to fit the circumstances and leaving the strained environment to regenerate in its own time. That is to say: they actively adjusted to the changing environment, rather than forcing the environment to conform steadfastly to their needs.
But the foraging villagers occupying the alluvial delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in southern Mesopotamia, found their environment so rich and regenerative, their population had plenty of room to grow. To feed a few more bellies, they could broadcast a few more grass seeds onto the seasonally deposited silt flats, then gather a some more grain and graze a few more sheep the following summer. Even if they did outgrow their immediate environs, or if a pestilence drove them out—an increasingly common risk as villagers and livestock proliferated—rather than disperse, some or all of them could simply inaugurate another village in the same deltaic region and continue their same way of life. Having been able to follow this way of life for some four thousand years, their villages spread throughout the delta, each one sheltering several thousand souls, and slowly growing. By the middle of the fourth century, BCE, it may be that this deltaic region was supporting a higher permanent population density than had previously ever been amassed anywhere (with the possible rival of a similarly rich, seasonally renewed region along the Yellow River of China, which also hosted sedentary foragers, who were spreading grain).
Something else was happening too: it seems they were losing their broader knowledge of ecosystems, alongside the flexible subsistence strategies and belief systems of their distant ancestors. Without that knowledge and understanding, their subsistence options became constrained. And even the richest bottomlands have their limits. At some point, the resource requirements of the people climbed beyond the regenerative capacity of the environment, especially as these permanent settlements required great amounts of wood for building, for firing kilns and forges, much more than their immediate environs could sustainably supply (and far more than their nomadic ancestors had required). As they increasingly deforested the riverbanks all along their courses, this began to trigger new patterns of erosion and siltation across the delta, increasing flood risks and hindering their simple system for propagating grain. As their foraging range was being overtaxed and damaged, they must have noticed this, much as we witness cherished environments degrade.
What’s more, the stories they now told themselves—about the right way to live, what was important, how to address their troubles—no longer recognized the ancient, tried and true strategy of nomadism. As their gods were moving away from being abstractions of natural elements toward becoming projections of the things that humans make and do—like Ninurta, formerly a god of thunder and rain, now of the plough and of farming; or Dimuzid, earlier a god of the force that causes sap to rise in plants and of the end of the dry season, now of milk (a seasonal food in ancient Sumer, the sap of goats) and shepherds—they were learning to invest their faith in urban social models and agriculture, to search for remedies within these realms of what they considered superior knowledge, discounting other, half-forgotten knowledge systems and alternate framings for their problems. (A situation, I would argue, very akin to our present one.)
For them, any form of nomadism—requiring different but highly sophisticated knowledge, deep environmental awareness, alternate cultural institutions and value systems—had become an irretrievable, almost incomprehensible, way of life. Its detailed specificity was lost, remembered only as suggestive, mythic tales of a richer, easier time. Relying more heavily on their new knowledge, they planted more and more on the seasonally rejuvenated flood-plains. They traded surplus grain and finished products, like cloth or pottery, for the everyday items they’d once gathered, including wood, honey, stone and metal, now sourced only from afar, brought downriver or across valleys by those foreigners who remained as nomads. Production of surplus grain and growth of trade encouraged greater craft specialization—maybe also even ritual specialization—and possibly greater economic disparities than had ever existed before.
Separated from their once deep knowledge and experience of the wider living world, they now focused on understanding a handful of crops and livestock. Having abandoned their broader strategies of ecosystem stewardship, they now strategized ways to narrowly maximize near-term gain for their large populations, even as floods and pests regularly threatened their fields and multiplied their experience of hunger. One mechanism to augment agricultural production involved more strenuously controlling the lives within their own communities—particularly the lives of women, arrogating their labor as well as their reproductive capacity to produce more laborers needed for agriculture. It’s easy to imagine this beginning as cultural value, becoming a positive social pressure, eventually solidifying as an institution, in which cultural and economic forces allowed most women little leeway beyond a life dedicated to grinding grain, attending to their husbands and households, bearing and raising children, while devaluing their capacities for other social contributions. Another strategy was to more strenuously control the lives of animals, dominating larger herds and drafting them into heavy labor. They also drained wetlands—where once their ancestors had gathered, hunted, trapped, and fished—instead to plow fields, plant mono-crops, and channel rivers for irrigation. Only in the sweat of their brows did they eat bread from their fields.
Even with such steep investments in their localities, they still were forced to periodically abandon and re-establish their farms and towns, whenever irrigation irredeemably salinated their fields or epidemic disease broke out among the populace, their animals, or their crops—a growing menace of the dense way they lived. For a thousand years, during the mid-Holocene, their agricultural towns serially rose and fell, here and there, in different incarnations over the centuries. In rebuilding ever more complex and rigid societies, increasingly enclosed by walls, they advanced their knowledge of selectively promoting or diminishing other living communities in service to their own survival above all, which was readily becoming a commitment to human paramountcy and male supremacy. Recounting the mythic memories of their ancestors’ more richly abundant world and more leisurely lives, they may have been vaguely aware that they were caught in a “progress trap,” though their word for it might have been “curse.”
The agriculturalists’ societies were contorting into previously unimagined hierarchies and, sometime around 3500 BCE, a monarchy was established at Uruk, generally regarded the world’s first city-state and probably the world’s largest settlement of the time, housing between twenty-five to fifty thousand inhabitants. Most of these toiled ceaselessly, suffered chronic injuries from heavy and repetitive labor, and died young. Famine, malnutrition, bondage, plague, and tyranny—calamities only intermittently known to their foraging ancestors—had become regular features of their condition. Women found themselves triply constricted: their conception multiplied; their economic independence eroded away; their vigor sapped by unprecedented degrees of debilitating iron deficiency. Life in Sumerian city-states was killingly hard. Ecological destruction was multiplied to produce a greater surplus in order to support comfortably provisioned elite classes of priests and bureaucrats.
Keeping this urban enterprise running was highly leveraged, burdensome, and precarious. And the only way to sustain it, as the lands were used up and the city dwellers were now dying almost as quickly as they could be birthed, was to expand it: to take over new lands, new resources, new populations of laborers. Sometimes they sacked—or were sacked by—armies from nearby polities much like themselves; sometimes they set upon—or were set upon by—companies of inscrutable nomads. Edicts were passed to control subjects and slaves from trying to flee beyond the city walls. Agriculture, statism, and expansion became the only way forward. Despite its difficulties and sorrows, many saw it as their destiny, which they continually worked to improve upon, largely by doing more of the same with ever greater intensity.
Contests Over Human Destiny
As they multiplied and entrenched themselves throughout Mesopotamia, agricultural city-states were inventing bureaucracy and record keeping, new political modes and strategies for cooperation and coercion, trade and taxation. Their stories, too, were changing to normalize their new lifeways and experiences. We may still detect contesting sentiments within the swirling churn of their transforming and renewing value systems. Some appear in The Epic of Gilgamesh, a collection of Sumerian legends and myths etched into clay tablets, fragments of which lay buried among the Early Bronze Age ruins of southern Mesopotamia. Within these texts, about life and death and kingship, an even more ancient cosmic order is hinted at, a pre-agricultural “olden time” when the Anunnaki gods—a pantheon of elemental deities—were paramount. The Anunnaki gods created the Earth and sky and human beings (though the specifics differ greatly from the creative work of the Biblical god). During their reign, remembered as a time of easy abundance, the (semi-nomadic, foraging) ancestors of the Sumerians had mastered the baking of bread and learned to ferment beer. They’d already begun to understand themselves as something apart from the other creatures of the wild. And they suffered an overwhelming tragedy, which only a handful of them survived, when the Anunnaki gods finally brought forth a devastating flood because they found the noise of the growing human population aggravating.
Long after all these epic events, by the time scribes were setting down praises of King Gilgamesh of Uruk, the primacy of the Anunnaki gods had waned, most of them supplanted by a new generation of fully anthropomorphized Sumerian gods befitting their post-diluvian civilization. But the persistence of the Anunnaki stories suggests that the memory of the “olden times” yet retained some degree of cultural relevance, perhaps a fading nostalgia. Maybe other stories of the Anunnaki gods also continued to circulate within the oral traditions of neighboring communities who remained as nomadic foragers alongside the expanding city-states, until all of them were eventually subsumed or expelled by the agriculturalists, over scores of generations.
The Sumerians considered it their duty to labor for the gods of their cities. They organized their polities accordingly, from the king down through the various layers of society: those who minister to the local deity in her or his temple, who support or provision the temple work, who plough the fields and tend the flocks, all of which belonged to the local deity. Their legendary heroes battled the outlying nomadic peoples (the “fools, who know no bread”). Nomads and others who lost in battle were abducted into slavery, their children likely assimilated into the lower rungs of Sumerian society. Sumerians also knew nomadic peoples through trade. Given such intermixing and the brutal reality of life in Sumer, it isn’t entirely surprising that a faint jangle of ambivalence about this life—its harms, its desirability, its precariousness—echoes through their most epic tale. For on one level, The Epic of Gilgamesh reads like a declaration of statist life as human progress, as though this idea remained for some yet a new and foundering notion that the elite classes wished to edify. One way this theme comes across is through the story’s secondary character, Enkidu.
Like the much later Adam, Enkidu was formed from clay (though by the hand of a goddess). He begins as a man who lives uncorrupted by the knowledge of the human-built world, “pure,”* innocent, unaware of himself as different from the other animals among whom he lives, but even more so than Adam: rather than wielding dominion over the beasts, Enkidu grazes grass right alongside the gazelles and drinks at their watering holes, just like one of them. Yet, unlike Adam, Enkidu is not the first man. He is a foreigner from the uplands (the unfamiliar realm of nomadic peoples), who has come down to the plains, where he goes around ruining the game traps and releasing the catch from the snares of Uruk’s hunters. Stronger and faster than a city dweller (foragers were markedly taller, healthier, and more robust than their urbanized contemporaries), Enkidu is in every way the singular equal—an alter ego—to the physically extraordinary Gilgamesh, strapping son of a goddess and ruler of Uruk. But while Gilgamesh is a tyrant, Enkidu is possessed of a greater sense of fairness.
In this story too, it is a woman, Shamhat, who leads Enkidu from his state of purity into civilization. As a temple prostitute, Shamhat readily seduces Enkidu away from his gazelle companions. Her coupling with him transforms him, weakening him, physically, yet also bestowing him with “reason” and a “wide understanding.” After this, the gazelles reject Enkidu and flee. Shamhat spends weeks with Enkidu, engaging in discussion and sexual intercourse. She cleans him up, clothes him, teaches him, feeds him bread and beer—the hallmarks of civilization. She tells him:
As I look at you, Enkidu, you are like a god,
why with the beasts do you wander the wild?
Come, I will lead you to Uruk-the-City,
to the sacred temple, the dwelling of Anu!
Enkidu, arise, let me take you
to the temple Eanna, the dwelling of Anu,
where [men] are engaged in labours of skill,
you, too, like a man, will find a place for yourself.
Persuaded by Shamhat’s enthusiasm that he should get a job, Enkidu signs on as a shepherd. But one day, upon hearing that the local king intends to sleep with someone else’s bride, he is enraged; he storms to the marriage house and bars the door against Gilgamesh. The two men come to blows, until their thunderous contest ends in a draw. After this, the two become inseparably devoted companions, probably lovers, and run off to adventure together.
Much later, upon his deathbed, Enkidu curses Shamhat outlandishly for having civilized and weakened him, leading to his premature demise. Gilgamesh, however, persuades Enkidu to recognize civilization as a boon. Despite his own overwhelming grief upon losing his dearest companion, Gilgamesh chides his friend, “O Enkidu, why curse Shamhat the harlot, who fed you bread that was fit for a god, and poured you ale that was fit for a king, who clothed you in a splendid garment, and gave you as companion the handsome Gilgamesh?”
It’s primarily the stories of such agriculturalists that come down to us from Mesopotamia; the stories of those non-literate “fools, who knew no bread” can only be read where they might have been retained as fragments within the stories of the agriculturists who eventually absorbed them, maybe representing a glimpse of a subaltern perspective within the dominant history or perhaps coloring in a faded memory of a pre-agricultural past. But we know from surviving non-agriculturalists in other parts of the world, including forager-farmers and nomadic pastoralists (taken together as foragers), that their myths and legends encompass a wholly different set of worldviews than those already well developed in the Early Bronze Age cities of Mesopotamia: in particular, foragers frequently hold worldviews in which humans are not given to dominate the Earth but to discover how to live within it, in a relationship of balanced reciprocity. Foragers’ stories often feature episodes, for instance, in which particular animals aid, guide, antagonize, or reveal knowledge or wisdom to people; foragers frequently identify with or pay homage to particular animals, plants, the elements, or natural spaces. Perhaps the early behaviors of Enkidu are a Sumerian caricature of such beliefs and practices. By contrast, animals aren’t centered in the Bronze Age myths of the Fertile Crescent, but for animal-like monsters and, of course, the Serpent, who is cast as an enemy of humankind.
The Sumerians—and later inheritors of their stories—would go on to build ever larger, more socially and economically complex city-states. Their large and growing populations (primarily through raid and capture) produced increasing surpluses of food and labor to be siphoned by classes of elites, as their expansionist way of life displaced or absorbed their neighbors, human and non-human. Some two thousand years after Gilgamesh, when peoples of the Fertile Crescent were telling the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden (Eden derives from a Sumerian word meaning plain or steppe), any inherited memory of a pre-agricultural human existence had further atrophied to a barest sketch, merely a beguiling backdrop lacking event, impetus, or any narrative of its own beyond that of its demise: a beautiful time when nothing noteworthy happened, now ended. Eden was already tame, though, and despite their nudity, so were Adam and Eve, presiding above all other creatures. Though their descent to a livelihood of agriculture is characterized as a curse, whatever came before seems merely an empty prelude to the difficult destiny that the tellers of their tale accepted they deserved to live.
The agricultural states of the Fertile Crescent saw their civilizations grow to take over more and more land, displacing or absorbing through conquest other societies and ever larger realms of the non-human world, in a punctuated march that has never stopped. En route, they salinated their soils, cut down their forests, and decimated untold communities of life. Their towns and cities incessantly collapsed. And rose anew. And collapsed again. Some to be remembered only in myths and legends; most, wholly forgotten. The soils of the Middle East have never quite recovered from this multi-millennial onslaught of serial exhaustion, which is why when we look at pictures of Iraq and Jordan, southeastern Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Sinai today, we see dust, dust, and more dust, and it beggars the imagination to think this once held the Fertile Crescent. The process continues to this day, now spread across the planet and intensified as “industrial agriculture” that is extracting and diminishing the lands’ regenerative capacity faster than ever. This process will not be slowed unless and until we can deploy rediscovered and renewed modes of regenerative farming.
The essence of those stories of human destiny first birthed in Mesopotamia are still alive with us. In the manner by which mythologies have always operated and remained relevant, contemporary forces have reached back into those ancient stories, recombining and re-spinning them. Details have been strategically dropped or altered. Our interpretations and concerns have shifted: so much is still made of the curse laid upon Eve, but why no equivalent commentary on the curse flung against Adam? Today, though we may read the story, we’ve forgotten what it meant that natural bounty once surrounded us; we’ve forgotten what it meant that having to rely on food you must grow yourself could be felt as a diminishment of the human condition; we’ve forgotten that our grave error—our Original Sin—which cursed the ground and brought on suffering toil, was to see ourselves as spiritually and essentially different from the rest of creation, to see ourselves as gods.
Indeed, as the cultures who inherited those stories grew ever more powerful, conquering others or otherwise stealing their resources and labor, their worldview of paramountcy and domination would feed into colonialist and capitalist narratives, shaping our modern conceptions of Progress as human destiny. It’s difficult to imagine how we might have arrived at our present condition, had our dominant narratives centered stories that recognize kinship with creation and promoted values of reciprocity and balance within an interdependent web of living and non-living things, even an awareness of the value of human population control, as opposed to upholding injunctions to subdue and take dominion over the world and all of life, even to “go forth and multiply.”
Today we’ve gone far beyond the limits known by Gilgamesh or Adam and Eve—who, for all their special status, remained yet beholden to their gods—to now presume ourselves limitless in our ambition and potential, entitled to colonize and dominate even worlds beyond Earth as our Manifest Destiny; we readily liken ourselves to gods. This is the story we tell over and over again, in various guises across the world today, from our modern myths of superheroes and supervillains, to boardroom bickering over the world as an insensate stock of exploitable commodities, to eager articulations that technology will come to serve every transient human desire, to lunchroom chit-chat about our latest designs on the hoarding of wealth or how we might signal merit. Our modern, neoliberal, capitalist culture, built from the soil of human-centric agriculturalists’ stories—or paradigms, or presumptions, if you prefer—of humans as godlike and entitled to planetary or even cosmic dominion, leaves us beholden to no other gods, no limits in our potentials or our appetites. And it is upon this that we construct our dangerously exploitative notions of what constitutes civilization, development, and progress today.
But what if we questioned these stories at the root? What if we recognized that our belief in ourselves as spiritually separate and existentially different from the rest of life is maladaptive to human thriving in the long run? How might that change our notions of what it means to be civilized, how to pursue development and progress? For all we’ve been schooled to presume that human societies are by nature capitalist, human beings by nature purely competitive, the long run of human pre-history argues vehemently to the contrary. Even after people settled in the first permanent villages, even after they started to rely on gardens or small farms for some part of their subsistence, it still took thousands of years before their relatively egalitarian, narrowly or fluidly stratified societies were twisted into the first deeply, rigidly hierarchical city-states, and thousands more again before the advent of capitalism. Only today, our global, neoliberal, capitalist civilization has reached the apotheosis of relentless competition that, in its presumption of limitless growth, has utterly discarded the very notion of sustainability, which many previous societies had so wisely valued and practiced. Some call this progress, but I don’t believe that’s a considered judgment. Capitalism is not an inevitable aspect of human nature, nor is the fundamentally unsustainable lifestyle it has created for the elites of the Earth. It’s time to question everything that relies upon these ubiquitous presumptions.
[Part 12: Musings on the Anthropocene]
* All quotations regarding The Epic of Gilgamesh are sourced from the Penguin Books Ltd. Penguin Classics Kindle Edition.
Earlier Essays in this Series
1. The Garden of Eden with the Creation of Eve, painted by Jan Brueghel the Younger, part of the collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon. Public domain.
2. Clay sickle used for harvesting grain in Sumer, circa 3,000 BCE, displayed at the Field Museum. Creative Commons.
3. Bill of sale for a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumer, etched in Cuneiform on a clay tablet, circa 2,600 BCE, displayed in the Louvre. Creative Commons.
4. Victory stele depicting prisoners of war in Mesopotamia, circa 2,300 BCE, displayed in the Louvre. Creative Commons.
5. Photograph of the Euphrates River and its banks, 2005, by Sergeant James McCauley. Public domain.