Toward A Polyphony Of Stories

by Usha Alexander

[This is the fourteenth 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.]

Our human story has never been simple or monotonous. In fact, it has been nothing less than epic. Beginning from relatively small populations in Africa, our ancestors traveled across the globe. As they went, they mastered new environments, even while those environments were continuously changing—sometimes in predictable cycles, sometimes unpredictably, as the planet wobbled in its orbit, the sun flared, a volcano blew, or other geophysical events transpired. Born during the ever-fluctuating conditions of the ice age, early humans soon mastered a great variety of adaptive living strategies. They combined cycles of nomadism and settlement. They fished, trapped, followed game herds, ambushed seasonal mass-kills, or even forbade the consumption of particular species at various times and places. They tended forests and grasslands with controlled fire, spread seeds, shifted cultivation, pruned and grafted trees, fallowed lands, and followed seasonal produce, among other techniques, managing their local environments and recognizing that their own wellbeing was intimately tied up with the health of local ecosystems. Through these practices, each community relied upon diets that included hundreds of species of edible plants and animals, from palm piths to pine needles, sea slugs to centipedes, mosses to mongooses—far beyond the foods we ordinarily think of today—and developed material cultures and pharmacopeias that might have included hundreds more. Such flexibility and breadth of environmental understanding promoted resiliency among what grew into a great diversity of peoples over hundreds of millennia, many of whom managed to steadily inhabit a particular region, maintaining an unbroken cultural continuity over hundreds of generations.

Alongside their diverse subsistence strategies, human societies also practiced an astonishing array of social and political institutions and arrangements—none of them ever amounting to a utopia—many of them difficult for us even to imagine today, with our impoverished templates of human possibility. They included fluid forms of power sharing that shifted ritually, seasonally, or otherwise, between generations, genders, lineages. Sometimes social power was more centralized; other times more distributed or opportunistic; sometimes more closely tied with wealth, but not usually.

In matrilineal societies, such as the Haudenosaunee of northeastern North America and the Minangkabau of Sumatra, for instance, women typically governed all immovable property, while men held political leadership titles. In many matrilineal societies, the prevailing women’s institutions selected male political leaders or exercised veto or impeachment power over their tenure; in other such systems, male political leaders were selected by popular consensus or by other men. The Toka Leya of southern Zambia, by contrast, are governed by a brother and sister team of hereditary chiefs: she presides over matters of land and heredity, while he oversees more external affairs, and both live in a manner not very different from that of their subjects. Among various First Nations and Pacific Island peoples, paramount chiefs may be male or female, hereditary or chosen. At the same time, particularly among highly nomadic peoples, steep social hierarchies might form and dissipate in annual cycles, depending upon what kind of communal labor was required, for example, convening in autumn for mass antelope hunts, then dispersing into egalitarian bands, when a different mode of cooperation was required for gardening or resource gathering in spring or summer. Meanwhile, still other leaders arose or counsels coalesced around the practice of particular rituals, with powers restricted to their ritual domains (yet make no mistake: many rituals were tied closely to the land and resource consumption or distribution). Generational cohorts had their own representatives who convened across clans, tribes, or villages, with specific duties and powers. In these ways and others, human societies have practiced arrangements of hierarchy, heterarchy, obligation, cooperation, coercion, and sharing that have worked to maintain human wellbeing and ecological balance, particular to their times and places.

Before the homogenizing force of the modern, statist, capitalist world stretched itself to command the globe, the scope of diversity among living societies would have been astounding. From their sociopolitical arrangements to their material cultures to their economic systems, each was uniquely adapted to its local environmental realities. And each was in communication with its neighbors, exchanging knowledge and goods, engaging in cooperative rituals and intermarriage, certainly influencing one another, sometimes preying upon each other. Yet they co-existed to the degree that the diversity they represented persisted and even expanded, throughout the long span of human prehistory. Few presumed that their way was the only right way by which everyone should live; diversity was normalized.

Yet, after having meandered along, employing and recombining strategies from that expansive slate of possibilities across varied and changing environments for hundreds of millennia, we’ve recently abandoned nearly all of it. The spread of the modern nation-state model, led by a narrow vision of economic growth and a materially aspirational lifestyle, underwritten by massive fossil fuel consumption, has wiped that enormous diversity of cultural forms off the globe, replacing it with a single, all-encompassing narrative that stands in the way of our even remembering, reimagining, formulating, and innovating new possibilities for how to live on our changing planet. The world has been radically diminished in the past few hundred years because humans have embraced only one exceedingly rigid possibility for all environments all of the time.

Even our food sources have been reduced from the several thousands of species of plants and animals once enjoyed as nourishment across the globe to perhaps several dozen. Today, most people on the planet and our livestock get the bulk of our calories from just a handful of crops: maize, rice, wheat, soy, millet—and, oh yes, sugarcane! Add to this some eleven different pulses we commonly eat. Most of our vegetables are cultigens of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, cabbages, onions, and hardly a dozen others. It’s the same with our common fruits. The animals we eat are primarily limited to cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens. And all of these are usually raised and consumed without regard to what works with local ecologies—we even try to make seasonal produce available year-round. As foods have constricted in variety, so have the lifeways and cultural contexts that surround them. And all of this increasing homogeneity has been regarded as Progress by the dominant paradigms of our emergent world culture, our narrowing notions of what we call civilization.

On Progress as Homogeneity and Dominion

Among our global civilization’s most widely shared Big Ideas is a particular paradigm of Progress: we tend to imagine societies, individuals, even natural systems ideally advancing from a more chaotic and “primitive” condition toward a “higher” teleological goal. Progress is conceived as a unidirectional striving toward a singular desirable end. This idea pervades all major world religions: they consider societies or individuals to be advancing when they abandon the freewheeling disorder of animism to embrace religious authority, centralized and homogenized by texts and hierarchies; they teach that individual souls find progress either through seeking union with the divine to attain the ideal state of Nirvana/Moksha or through submission to the single, perfect being who created humans in his image. Even in science, when we speak of evolution by natural selection, it’s difficult to get away from the language and bias that certain lifeforms are more advanced or more evolved than others. We speak this way of human societies, too, regarding some as more primitive and others as more developed. In general, we consider those forms of life that are more similar to us humans, and modes of life that more closely resemble the upper-class (and, today, Western) lifestyle to be obviously more advanced and developed; we regard those lifeforms that live separated into single-celled entities, and those societies who live as foragers without centralizing governing institutions, as most primitive.

We use hierarchical language with biological evolution despite knowing that all life has been evolving on Earth from the same source over the same stretch of time, moving from a few incipient forms toward a bourgeoning diversity of forms, each with its own array of senses and abilities. When we consider that some lifeforms can harvest sunlight for food or fix nitrogen from the air or navigate by sensing magnetic fields—that, in fact, the roster of talents among the non-human is endless, each form uniquely suited to its environment, possessing powers that evade us—we might consider alternate framings for assessing what it means to be more evolved or advanced. One might say, in fact, that lifeforms who’ve had the most time to optimize their particular game, refine their slate of strategies, and remain agile in their adaptability are every bit as highly developed as human beings. Take, for example, the startlingly proactive slime molds, those shape-shifting, single-celled beings who’ve inhabited Earthly soils for some six-hundred million years now; they’ve persisted so long by mastering the tricks of survival, of both competition and cooperation. Meanwhile, latecomers, like upright primates, are the newbies on the block, relatively untested, slower to adapt, and vulnerably dependent upon the stability of the rest of the biome to survive. We can safely presume that the slime molds will remain long after hominins go extinct.

A similar principle might apply to human societies as well. Some Indigenous communities in Melanesia, Polynesia, Australia, the Arctic, and the Americas, for example, retain practical cultural continuities—subsistence practices, sociopolitical institutions, knowledge systems, economic values—that surely pre-date those of our global, industrial civilization by at least several millennia. They’ve managed to thrive in the same territory, living in a manner that would be still generally recognizable to their ancestors, avoiding dramatic cycles of population boom and bust with their institutional and material infrastructures reasonably intact (at least until the time of European colonial invasion), and actively drawing upon knowledge systems and living traditions reaching back many millennia—in some cases, to pre-Holocene times, as has been documented among Aboriginal Australians. Such societies must be considered every bit as developed as the so-called “developed” nations. After generations of trial and error, they would’ve worked out many of the kinks in their systems, learned to recognize potential pitfalls and traps, and mastered strategies for resilience when disaster strikes. Whereas, the technologically prolific, capitalist nation-states that began to overtake the globe hardly five hundred years ago are newcomers, already revealing their existential vulnerability to myriad unforeseen issues and errors of their own making.

Yet, in fact, most of us “moderns” struggle mightily with this perspective. Because our unexamined notions of Progress insinuate a particular direction in which Nature undertakes to proceed, we habitually tend to imagine the Western, White, upper-class human male as representing its pinnacle or ideal. The ahistorical judgements we’ve long made about primitivity versus advancement or development reveal our teleological presumption that life and living systems strive toward a common goal, a single, perfect form that subsumes all others, as though homogeneity, centralization, and efficient domination are the most advanced state for living systems.

However, the study of living systems suggests that a more meaningful marker of advanced evolution or development may not be homogeneity or centralization of power, but rather systemic resilience. And resilience is generally underwritten by diversity. Living diversity is a kind of decentralized intelligence, if you will, allowing the different parts of a whole, flourishing system to optimize local solutions to local challenges, without threatening the whole. Diversity of forms, diversity of strategies, diversity of environments, diversity of responses—diversity drives evolution and the staggering, incomprehensible complexity we find in living systems, from individual organisms to ecosystems to the whole of the biosphere. Diversity is not efficient, from the perspective of any subset of actors attempting to reduce their own investment for an outcome that predictably advances their own narrow interests or garners profit for their benefit. But in decentralized or headless systems that result from diversity, there is no singular entity assuming the rising costs of trying to achieve its mono-maniacal ends.

Obviously, the diversity within a functioning and cohesive system cannot be so extreme that its parts are attempting to annihilate one another, falling into unrelenting competition or catabolism. Yet, alongside mutualism and harmony, some sustainable degree of conflict and competition must be expected, resulting in a dynamic tension: balance. And neither should diversity be confused with redundancy: merely repeating or cloning identical strengths and vulnerabilities. The different elements within a resilient system must operate differently enough—relying, for example, on different living strategies or sets of resources—to function separately, while also being able to function cooperatively as parts within a larger whole. The organizing principle is the balanced functioning of the whole, since the health of the system requires the health of its parts. For ecosystems, resilience is gained through increasing diversity among species who participate within the ecosystem, none of them achieving extreme or stable domination. For individual species, resilience is gained by maintaining diversity within their populations.

Could it be that for the human species, resilience was analogously higher when there was greater diversity among societies? We know that losing diversity across the breadth of species destabilizes the entire web of life, and losing diversity even within a single population reduces its resilience too, leaving it more vulnerable to shocks that might lead to extirpation. What if, in the quest for domination, efficiency, and profit, human cultures have been homogenized, thereby destabilizing what used to be a more resilient web of human societies?

Our Early Experiments in Homogeneity

Over the millennia since Adam and Eve were cast out into the dust of their agricultural fields, their cultural progeny have spread themselves across the globe by casting out countless others in turn—both human and non-human—from their own respective Edens, forcing other peoples to take up their curse of agricultural toil, and then industrial toil, too. Entitled by the paradigms of Progress they inherited, they’ve unleashed their desires across the planet to consume anything they want and destroy everything they don’t, diverting waterways, drying up wetlands, and draining aquifers; spreading copious quantities of chemical fertilizers, weed killers, and insecticides; artificially mixing up species through transplantation and now genetic engineering; dredging and mining away entire mountains and forests and coastlines; annihilating ocean life; and on and on through the litany of ecological and biospheric depredations. The spread of Progress has reduced Earth’s seething abundance to tamed homogeneity, with a commensurately catastrophic loss of wild biodiversity.

Yet this—what we like to call civilization: literate, state societies—is actually a new social, economic, and political form. Since their earliest days, state societies have followed a broadly similar monarchical or oligarchical setup, defined by rigid and extreme disparities in wealth and power supported by narrowly focused, intensively extractive agriculture. This was certainly true of the Mesopotamian states—beginning some five thousand years ago in that very limited area of the globe—whose peculiar, human-centric worldview and practices would dramatically evolve to inform modern notions of human exceptionalism and centralizing patterns of extractivist domination.

It’s been around two hundred and forty generations since the earliest agricultural city-states came to dominate the Fertile Crescent; it’s been hardly one hundred and sixty generations, since a handful of other regions—from the Nile River to the Indus Valley to the Yellow River to the Yucatan Peninsula, the Amazon Basin, the Andes Mountains—also adopted or reinvented agriculture and statism.[1] If we count individual iterations of the statist model that have continuously and cohesively persisted for say, even five hundred years (some twenty generations) without intermittent breakdown of some sort—depopulation, destruction, “dark age”—else relying upon continual warfare or colonization to appropriate new lands, resources, and laborers, they number but a handful out of unknown hundreds. And Mayan cities may have sustained relative longevity not by pulling all their subject peoples into homogeneity but, at least in part, by continuing to rely on decentralized networks of satellite villages that maintained flexible, ecologically embedded subsistence strategies mixing various modes of foraging and cultivation. This strategy may have buffered their grand cities, their seats of centralized power, from even faster ecological overshoot or adverse events. Some urban centers of the Indus Valley—the first in South Asia—were also unusually long-lived. The site of Dholavira, for example, was continuously inhabited for seven hundred years. Sociopolitical organization across the Indus Valley appears to have been surprisingly egalitarian and their cultures unusually non-militaristic. All of these features make their cities highly atypical; however, so much about them remains a mystery, it’s difficult to extrapolate from their case toward general principles of sustainability.

And yet, despite the agricultural-states’ propensity to collapse, five thousand years after its first, faltering attempts in Mesopotamia, today, nearly everyone in the world has been drafted into it or been made dependent upon it. The Mesopotamian experiment in its modern instantiation still fundamentally relies upon maximizing agriculture, minimizing Nature, and producing a growing material surplus to support the expanding tiers of a (now global) class system, rooted in oligarchical and colonial patterns of extraction. All of this at the tremendous expense of the churning diversity lost—reams of ecologically situated, experiential knowledges that previously existed and which clearly haven’t been adequately reconstituted within our prevailing modern knowledge system that has guided us further away from sustainability and nearer to catastrophe. In our globalized, homogenizing world, systemic risk is ever more contagious—as we’ve seen in the spread of disease pathogens, mass influxes of refugees, global economic crises, periodic constrictions in oil and other supply-chain breakdowns—ultimately making all groups vulnerable to shocks arising elsewhere in the world.

The opening bell of capitalist civilization is often considered to have been rung in Europe around 1600 CE (though, George Monbiot argues for 1420 CE on the island of Madeira), coincident with the spread of European colonialism and its nation-state model of political organization, which, at the time, encompassed only a minority of people on the planet. Largely through their efforts, alongside the already longstanding mercantilism of small Indian Ocean states (particularly the seaside sultanates commanding bustling transoceanic trade routes) also grown more extractive and aggressive over the preceding millennium, nascent capitalist states and colonies more rapidly began to enclose vastly more peoples across the planet and then, a couple of centuries later, bind them together with fossil fuel infrastructures. It’s been fewer than two centuries since nearly everyone on Earth has been linked into a rigidly interconnected system, tightly dependent upon fossil energy and materials: this is our present experiment. We are perhaps five or seven generations into it.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of fascism in its many guises, internal political rebellions based on shifting identities, the splintering of consensus around ordinary facts within the body politic of every technocratic state, banking-sector failures that produce global economic shocks, the proliferation of nuclear warheads, institutions and dependencies that are now “too big to fail”—such developments that have kept up a steady beat since the mid-20th Century—are a stark reminder of the fragility of our homogenizing, centralizing civilizational model, of its vulnerability to the unstoppable spread of all manner of social and biological pathologies. The long-term success of our present geopolitical system of at least nominally democratic nation-states, itself, seems far from assured. And considering its novelty as a way of life, it becomes only too painfully clear that our contemporary notions of what is “normal” or predetermined or divinely ordained—let alone what constitute sensible and just constructs, economies, and institutions within human societies—are not merely ahistorical and biased, but are actually naive, based on little human experience of any meaningful timeframe at all. Indeed, our modern society, so oversaturated with information, has somehow simultaneously been increasingly prone to forget and discount the knowledges of the past than were those ancient societies, who relied entirely upon oral histories. Our commonplace ideas of what social forms humans can devise for salutary flourishing tend to be equally ahistorical and constrained in imagination, blinkered by the dominant narratives of the present and drowning out the voices bearing alternative stories—of Indigenous peoples and humane visionaries—now heard only from the margins, if we know to listen.

We have turned a blind eye to the self-limiting consequences of what we call Progress, held in thrall by the star beneficiaries of the program’s short-term largesse; we pointedly look away from the hideous destruction, ignore the onrushing catastrophes, and remain committed to supporting a pantheon of capitalist elites. But if we take away those delusions of infinite growth and the anti-egalitarian priorities of the privileged, destroying the biosphere to produce greater immediate surplus for overconsumption by a minority reveals itself as an insane and malignant goal. And considering that the Haudenosaunee, following their ancient injunction to consider the consequences of every decision unto the seventh generation, plainly recognized the dangers of the progress trap, while our modern paradigms have stubbornly refused to acknowledge any practical limits to human power—to our great peril—it becomes laughable to imagine that our capitalist nation-states could teach these First Nations peoples anything meaningful about development.

Try, Try Again

It’s already time to reimagine: What if our notion of civilization weren’t predicated on competition and consumption-led growth? What if, instead, it were conceived to produce and distribute enough for individual and social thriving, in a manner that also prioritizes the flourishing of a healthy biome? What if most people had access to what they most need—food, shelter, healthcare, knowledge, work, leisure, dignity? What if social value was placed on social participation and support, cooperation and sharing, rather than the competitive hoarding of wealth? And what if technological innovation served society, rather than being primarily incentivized by the hope of disproportionate profits accruing to a small league of investors, as is normal today?

Such societies are humanly possible. Indeed, these are the values and notions and priorities to which all enduring, pre-state societies once hewed far more closely than does our present iteration of civilization, undergird their staggering variety of societal forms. Just as our present sociocultural value on the hoarding of wealth informs and motivates individual choices, creating a world of inhumane economic disparities and competition, so valuing participation, cooperation, and social cohesion has likewise informed and motivated individual choices differently to create worlds of greater human connection and equity. Until very recently in the human story, material technologies were developed without being incentivized by personal enrichment or reward but, rather, knowledge was widely shared in what we might call an “open source” model; perhaps as a result of this, for the most part, technologies were developed in response to real needs. Material innovation was slower than today, sure; but ever since it became a race, we have been racing toward catastrophe, with wildly disproportionate benefits accruing to a minority of people.

And what about other forms of innovation? If we dropped our fixation on gadgetry—status-signaling appliances, vehicles, and entertainments—as the most relevant technology, we might instead put effort into technologies that enlarge social gains; we might pursue the discovery of better practices and institutions that actually improve human cooperation, mutual understanding, ecological stewardship, and other forms of widespread improvements to human and planetary wellbeing, including universal healthcare, more responsive social and legal institutions, local stewardship of resources, education that enlarges civic sense and ecological sensibility, and so much more that once was normal. If our goal were to promote the sustainable thriving of humans and all other living beings, rather than pursue limitless growth for our own kind, then the innovations of industrial extraction reveal themselves as worse than useless. We might identify saner, less malignant goals, if we relearned a conception of ourselves as part of a larger system of living things.

Indeed, among Indigenous cultures that retain a cultural continuity with their pre-statist past, people do still actively appreciate the interdependencies of creation. The representatives of Indigenous peoples and organizations who convened at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia in 2010 assert that “Mother Earth is a living being.” In their proposed universal declaration, Rights of Mother Earth, and the accompanying People’s Agreement, largely developed in response to the failed 2009 CoP15 talks in Copenhagen, they posit full rights to all creatures, affirming, among other things, “Mother Earth and all beings are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, species, origin, use to human beings, or any other status.”[2] Their Declarations reflect a worldview in which humans are understood as but one among myriad, co-equal forms of creation, rather than rulers entitled to dominate or heedlessly exploit the Earth or each other. And all of us subject to the integrity and wellbeing of the whole Earth system.

What if Indigenous cultures were restored control over their ancestral lands, so that no one could ruin what they had been sustainably stewarding for innumerable generations? This is an idea already promoted by the IPCC to combat environmental destruction, and by farmers promoting regenerative agricultural by also integrating ancient principles of cultivation. What if, instead of stealing from Indigenous peoples, we learned from those who know how not to follow any version of the Mesopotamian model of domination and growth but instead promote models of how to live more sustainably? One need not romanticize the distant past or Indigenous cultures to appreciate that they might know things the rest of us have forgotten. Many of them have understood something essential about human flourishing that we have lost in our narrower quest for environmental control and inequitable distributions of grand wealth, in our attempts to homogenize the human story.

Of course, in a world of nearly eight billion humans, commercial agriculture is likely to remain a primary mode of subsistence for the foreseeable future; this is but one intractable facet of our present human predicament[3]. Yet we must at least try to mitigate its worst harms through a rediscovery of more sustainable practices[4]. And rather than lament the slowing of human population growth and trying to reverse it—which could take us back generations in hard-won liberties for women—we ought to welcome a voluntary population decline. This alone won’t be enough to promote sustainability for our species, however. We must also build a new imaginary within our constraints—new visions made vivid through new stories. It’s time to dismantle the narratives that have led us down this maladaptive road to ecological—and ultimately, civilizational—ruin, beginning with the fables of Homo Deus, Manifest Destiny, the Invisible Hand of the Market, and Limitless Growth. Shifting to new paradigms is a Herculean task, and I do not make light of it. Such cultural shifts usually take generations, and so it might for a next civilizational transition to fully take hold across the globe. Of course, our challenge is that time is of the essence, so we must prepare ourselves, break ourselves open to confront the task.

A Different Paradigm of Progress

In our talk about global warming and other ecological crises—or what I’d rather call our sustainability crisis—it’s well and good to talk about new energy technologies and carbon credits, endangered species lists and nature preserves, as partial measures to manage the inevitable civilizational transition. But it won’t make a jot of difference to the planetary outcome if these merely result in solutions that are shaped by the same old narratives. For the same stories will only guide us toward the same ends, doom us to rebuilding the same thing all over again, just like all the serial re-builders of the lost Holocene civilizations who came before us, reliant upon the same failed model of concentrated wealth and power, heedless extraction and exploitation. Only this time, collapse won’t be local, affecting individual states or regions, nor overcome by renewed domination of larger tracts and more dispersed resources; it will be planet-wide and affecting the whole of the biosphere. And while we aren’t likely to recreate the cultural diversity that supported human flourishing on our once robustly biodiverse icehouse planet, now forever altered, we might at least discern the fundamental principles that worked; they are our best guides—our only tested guides—to sustainable survival.

So it is also useful to ask, What if meaningful human progress lies not at all in our technology, but in our social innovations? In forging mutualistic relationships, expanding our social understanding of one another, fostering peace and sustainability? What if our real progress has always lain in our ability to nurture the life around us, to flexibly adapt ourselves to changing environments, to live and let live, appreciating the salutary role of diversity within and between societies? To the extent we’ve been able to foster peace in diversity, we, as a species, have progressed; to the degree we have failed in this, exploited, killed, and homogenized one another, we have not. Accepting diversity is of course fraught with challenges and tradeoffs, similar to the challenges of pluralism; as ever, it requires us to seek balance. But the principle of progress as nurturance of living diversity ultimately leads away from customs, norms, and ideals that pursue boundless extraction and growth or that systematically homogenize culture and reinforce rigid hierarchies, oppressing diversity or exploiting the bodies and labor of some individuals for the benefit of others. For such conventions inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction; they are untenable.

The good news is that stories that support our rediscovery of sustainable thriving on Earth are already out there, even if they more often get damped and silenced when competing with the dominant narratives. We can train ourselves to listen for them, to amplify them, and to build forth from them. Some people have been telling them for years. Many of those storytellers have been shouted down as cranks, fools, primitives, anti-social elements. A few are now gaining more positive attention, including the purveyors of ecological economics; activists, especially Indigenous leaders, building communities of resilience based on sustainable knowledge systems or cooperative socioeconomic enterprises; engaged youths and other leaders and activists calling conventional powerbrokers and institutions to account. Many people hold pieces of an evolving vision for a renewed future, even if each of us struggles with blind spots and obstacles and limits to our imagination, too. But if we dare to ask the right questions, if we listen to the polyphony of answers, we may begin to discover new modes of mutuality, co-existence, and resilience.


“We are at a time where the problems of the world just can’t be answered by the prevailing imaginary. We are at a time of breakdown.” —Philosopher Sylvia Earle, University of East Anglia, as quoted in The Future Earth, by Eric Holthaus


“[The] climate and ecological crisis cannot be solved within today’s systems. There are no tools, no laws nor regulations that keep us from destroying the living conditions for life on this planet as we know it. In order to solve this crisis we need a whole new way of thinking.” —Greta Thunberg, December 2020

[Part 15: What a Way To Go. All essays in this series can be read here.]


Scott, James C.. Against the Grain (p. 86). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2010.

3 According to ecologist Dr. William Rees, “Agriculture is the single most damaging technology ever developed by human beings—particularly fossil-fueled agriculture.”

A film that delightfully documents how one family is creating a viable farm based in principles of ecological diversity is The Biggest Little Farm. The story encapsulates their years-long struggle and satisfaction of discovering balance on the land. The cinematography, too, is gorgeous.


1. Possible immigration routes taken by early modern humans expanding out of Africa, beginning as early as 130k years ago, during the Eemian Interglacial. From Human Dispersal Out of Africa: A Lasting Debate, Saioa López, Lucy van Dorp, and Garrett Hellenthal. Evol Bioinform Online. 2015; 11(Suppl 2): 57–68. Published online 2016 Apr 21. doi: 10.4137/EBO.S33489. Creative Commons.

2. A common schematic illustrating human evolution by natural selection. Image by M. Garde. Creative Commons.

3. French ships in battle, during the age of European Colonialist expansion. Detail of Battle of Grand Port: From left to right: French frigate Bellone, French frigate Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon. Creative Commons.

4. A map showing early Indian Ocean trade routes, which helped accelerate the spread of mercantilism, capitalism, and statism over the past five hundred years. From “Austronesian Shipping in the Indian Ocean: From Outrigger Boats to Trading Ships” in (2016) Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 51−76 ISBN: 9783319338224. Creative Commons.