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Our war against ourselves

Updated: Jun 26, 2022


‘We don't have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'

- Wendell Berry

Monoculture of sunflowers, Somogy province, Hungary, August 2021.

About six weeks ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing the biggest war and humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.

It brings war very close to home, this time. Every day we get images of destroyed tanks, corpses of soldiers, houses and apartment buildings reduced to smoking rubble, bodies of mothers and children in the streets, desperate refugees trying to escape violence that spares nothing or no one. And all this in the heart of Europe.

It is bewildering, heartbreaking, frightening. We awoke to another world on February 24, it sometimes seems.

Yet war is a fact that many millions of people worldwide face every day, despite the surprising observation that the world has never been more peaceful than it is today. The world really is becoming more peaceful and there are less wars being fought now than in the past according to research, but because of the media's constant focus on violence and spectacle, you won't easily get that impression.

Still, war remains a permanent presence on this planet until this day. Terrible conflicts are currently raging in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, to name a few. War might break out again in other countries, like Libya and Bosnia.

All over the world, millions of people are fleeing violence, last year more than sixty million in total according to the UN.

We receive images and information of these wars through our mainstream media, yet these tragedies often remain distant not only spatially but also in our perception. We take note, possibly we are also really touched for a shorter or longer time, but I think it is fair to say that those wars remain much more abstract to our perception and experience. Hence perhaps also that our hospitality seems much more limited when people fleeing from those "far away" wars seek safety and a new life in more prosperous and safe countries.

And I think it is fair to say that we are more affected now. That the daily reports of city blocks reduced to rubble, hospitals and schools bombed, and children's bodies crippled, now give us much more of a kick in the gut and evoke a more intense sense of despair in us, at the sight of merciless extreme violence deliberately directed also against the most vulnerable civilians.

War is always terrible, but now that it is so nearby and the cities and people who are its victims seem so much more recognizable, we seem much more impressed than we were by the appalling suffering in Yemen and Syria.

That may be all too human. Possibly the human capacity for empathy also has real limitations that are ‘hard-wired’., at least in this phase of our evolution.

Perhaps it is not possible for us to empathize deeply with the pain and despair of the people in Yemen and Syria, or to be equally touched by the senseless destruction that has continued there for years, day after day. At least not from our current level of consciousness, which is so strongly defined by separation and competition.

Destroyed Russian tanks near Kiev. Photo AP News

If that is really so, then I think we should now, rather than feeling guilty about this, really empty the cup: let us again really feel what war is, what it does to people, what the essence of war is. Let us really keep watching this time, no matter how great the temptation to look away again, to be absorbed by daily life, to banish the horror to the corners of our consciousness again, to entertain ourselves again in order not to feel the pain.

Why look at it more? Why allow ourselves to feel it more, rather than less?

Because by really seeing this and letting it in, we are brought back to ourselves and to life: the violence and horror that we see now are the externalization of energy that can manifest in all of us, and are part of what and who we are as a species and as a being at this moment. Only by confronting that can we go through it and learn something. And we undoubtedly have a lot to learn, about ourselves, about what we are all doing on this planet and with this planet.

Having said that, I must admit that I find it very hard myself to really allow this to happen.

I suspect that many people experience a similar tension between involvement and empathy on the one hand and shielding and denial on the other.

A process that we all go through as well when it comes to other crises that we experience as existential and potentially overwhelming. As in the case of what we usually call the ‘climate crisis’.

There too we often keep the real awareness of what is happening at a distance, out of a reflex of self-protection. There too, the confrontation with reality feels at times too threatening and overwhelming. And there too I feel the need not to avoid this confrontation with reality but to keep looking at it despite fear and even despair. There too we must learn and take a step in our evolution from an understanding of the causes of the crisis.

War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, Von Clausewitz said.

War can be also many other things, and can exist in many different kind of processes and on many levels.

Just as the term "peace" designates a condition that can be more than just absence of struggle or war, the term "war" designates a condition that can be more than just armed conflict.

If anything could come out of this war that would not be merely tragic and terrible, perhaps this: that in our part of the world we might begin to see more clearly again what war essentially is. And that we may learn something about the ways in which processes at work in war situations also take place in other domains, which we do not usually associate with war.

Jean Froissart, 15th century depiction of the battle of Crécy.

Perhaps we can learn to see more clearly again how in other ways and in other places we are engaged in permanent wars against each other and ultimately against ourselves.

Our society may at this point be living in the absence of war as a military conflict, but I would also by no means describe the state we are in as 'peace'.

We also like to declare war on anything and everything in our society. Somehow we like the imagery and symbolism of the concept of war. We declare war on drugs, on poverty, on cancer, on the coronavirus, and so on. With each of these wars, one can wonder what they have already achieved and whether we would not be better off choosing a more fruitful path through another metaphor, not assuming that there is an 'opponent' to be overcome.

Moreover, and this brings me to the reason why I started writing this text, I think with many others who are engaged in what we for the sake of simplicity call 'ecology' that we are currently engaged as a species (homo sapiens) in a sort of permanent war with our planet.

When exactly our relationship to our living world tilted toward one that we can call "war" is difficult to determine and depends on the perspective from which the question is asked. Many would answer that the industrial revolution was a tipping point, but others would choose the development of agriculture as the beginning of our 'struggle'. In any case, it can be said that our relationship to our biosphere has gradually evolved from one of coherence and symbiosis to one of conflict and attempted domination.

This war is gradually becoming more and more intense, as with any war all means seem to be permitted, and as with any war the goal is to gain total control over the one considered to be the 'adversary'. And it is a war that, like most wars, essentially stems from unconsciousness and the limitations of the human ego. It is also a war that cannot possibly be won and will only have losers.

Labeling our relationship to our planet as a war may seem exaggerated.

However, if we consider "war" in a somewhat broader sense, it quickly becomes clear that the relationship of humans to the broader ecosystem of which they are a part is indeed characterized by a condition that we can call "war.

The war we are waging day by day with our planet is pervasive, total, relentless, high-tech as well as particularly primitive, and is being waged on many fronts simultaneously around the world: in our industrial agriculture, in which we are caught up in permanent chemical and biological warfare that is wiping out all life in, on and around our fields at a staggering rate; in the remaining rainforests on our planet that are being razed to the ground at a rate of several soccer fields a minute to make way for monocultures of soy or palm oil; in the oceans that are being emptied at breakneck speed, used as a garbage dump for everything from plastic to radioactive waste, acidifying and warming up faster than the rest of the planet and in which 'dead zones' are becoming larger and larger.

The war rages in the rivers, lakes, and wetlands of all continents. In the fragile ecosystems of estuaries, marshes, and floodplains. In the last remaining natural reserves that are increasingly in danger of being opened up to mining, fracking, and oil extraction.

This war is a real world war, you could say. The real 'mother of all wars'.

Strip mining. Photo Dominic Vanyi

And the stakes are, as with so many wars in history: control, domination and extraction.

Control: rather than existing in cooperation with our natural biotope, seeing ourselves as in service to it and in coöperation with it, and striving to find our place in it out of reverence for the complexity, sacredness and inherent value of all of nature, we believe we must always control it in all its aspects in order to achieve

Dominance: we believe that we are in a position where we must dominate all processes in the natural world and bend them to our will. Rather than listening to what nature is telling us, and acting in alignment with it, we deem ourselves capable of always imposing our will on nature, from our perceived superiority over the natural world.

Extraction: our current economic system is essentially based on extraction, and has been since the rise of agriculture and the emergence of the first city-states and kingdoms. Extraction of food, minerals and human labor is the basis of international trade relations and is a prerequisite for the maintenance of our sacred cow par excellence: 'economic growth'. Extraction is the ‘loot’, the main prize to be had from this war.

If we look at one of the biggest battlefields, industrial agriculture, at first glance we perceive success: global food production has increased by many factors, earlier catastrophic scenarios about global hunger have not materialized yet, and the available quantity of food has more than kept pace with the doubling of the world's population.

At first glance, we would not classify this scene as a war either.

Yet it is one of the domains where that word is most appropriate.

I will not even mention the aspects of agriculture whose harmfulness is already beginning to penetrate society's consciousness, such as deforestation and industrial livestock farming. Those issues are a major part of why our agriculture is taking such a heavy toll on our biosphere. But there are more.

Combine wheat harvester. Photo Scott Goodwill

The aforementioned spectacular increase in agricultural yields relies on two "weapons": pesticides and fertilizers.

Pesticides are a form of chemical warfare in its most obvious form. They are poisons, usually in the form of neonicotinoids or glyphosate, that we spread everywhere on, under, and alongside our gigantic expanses of industrial fields to eradicate all forms of life that can harm our crops.

And this form of chemical warfare, which has been raging for many decades now, seems to be successful: we manage to keep our crops safe from the attacks of the main 'adversaries'.

You could say that this war is too successful: life in, under and around our fields is disappearing at an alarming rate.

The relentless thoroughness with which we spray the earth with all kinds of poison is not really the equivalent of a "surgical strike" but rather comparable to the thoroughness of "carpet-bombing". This mass chemical attack, repeated year after year, has resulted in life leaving us and our planet.

Insects, the first creatures to colonize the land, are threatened with extinction just about everywhere in the world. In many places, a decline of insects by eighty to over ninety percent has been observed.

We cannot be alarmed enough about this. If the insects disappear, the fabric of life on this planet disappears. Put another way, the planet dies, and we die.

Insects are the basis of the food chain, and with them many other species are already threatened. In Europe and North America, it has been observed that one-third to one-half of the birds in the countryside have disappeared.

According to a report by Swiss Re, the planet's largest reinsurer, one in five countries in the world is on the brink of total ecosystem collapse due to this loss of biodiversity.

A staggering observation of the speed and thoroughness with which we are destroying the fabric of life in and around our fields. Birds, small mammals, wildlife, amphibians, worms, the entire microbiome of the is all being obliterated. And when it will be gone then we will discover that we have no soil left, as the existence of healthy soil also depends on so many living beings.

Swallowtail butterfly, Somogy province, Hungary, July 2021.

Insects are not just the base of the food chain, they, along with other "humble" and often unnoticed creatures such as mycelium and bacteria, are in endless ways an essential part of the fabric of life on our planet, a life force that at all levels sustains life in our biosphere, a bit like our circulatory system connects all parts of our bodies and provides them with energy and nourishment. One aspect of that important role, of course, is the role of insects as pollinators of countless plant species, including many on which we depend for our food supply. But their role is not limited to that. As mentioned above, they are partly nothing less than the circulatory system of our biosphere. That circulation is shutting down, and that anemia is already threatening much of the life forms around us.

So it is that the UN has recently classified the agricultural fields of (among others) the Netherlands as 'deserts' because of the appalling loss of biodiversity. A phenomenon that occurs wherever industrial agriculture is practiced.

Our chemical war is successful: we destroy life everywhere we apply it. But it is a war that is unwinnable, and just as Russia in Ukraine is also destroying itself, we too are destroying ourselves, as much as our 'opponent', who like ourselves is part of one and the same being, our biosphere.

Ploughed fields, Somogy province, Hungary, April 2022

Another way in which this war in agriculture is being waged is by tilling. Tilling, you may think, is there anything more natural for a farmer than tilling?

Well, yes. The plough is to the earth what a bombardment is to a city: it is destruction and mutilation on a grand scale. In nature you will not see exposed earth anywhere: earth is always covered with grasses, mosses, and other forms of life. Tilling earth on the scale we do now is an annually returning assault on the skin of the planet, as if we were skinning it alive every year. Moreover, this massive use of the plough on an industrial scale causes massive emissions of CO2. The earth is capable of capturing huge amounts of CO2, and storing it underground. But when we till the earth, the opposite happens: we bring the stored carbon to the surface and release it into the atmosphere. Annual tilling on an industrial scale causes a gigantic increase in CO2 emissions every time.

Agricultural methods such as plowing and deforestation have been destabilizing climate on a local scale long before the industrial revolution. Some 20 major civilizations have been wiped out by faulty agricultural methods, and large areas became desert in China, the Middle East, and North Africa, among others.

Of course, with the advent of large-scale industrial agriculture in the second half of the 20th century, the impact of agriculture on the planet increased exponentially, and the advent of pesticides and fertilizers ushered in a new chapter in the relationship of humans to the planet.

As mentioned, this initially seemed like a success story, but it is a false semblance of success.

Our farming methods, in addition to causing a staggering loss of biodiversity, also encourage erosion and loss of fertile soil, and it seems that if we continue to farm in this way, we will have used up the remaining fertile topsoil in most regions of the planet within sixty years or so.

This dramatic final number of sixty harvests is disputed by others, but all agree that erosion and degradation of fertile soil, which is in itself an ecosystem of unimaginable complexity, is a massive and life-threatening problem for humans.

Industrial monoculture is nothing more or less than large-scale total warfare on the planet, in which everything is permitted to defend our sterile fields from "the enemy. The problem is that if our enemy dies, so will we.

The fairly widespread belief is that this war is necessary to feed the world's ever-growing population, and that there is no alternative.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A great deal of research has shown that small-scale, organic, locally anchored agriculture is better able to feed the world.

A panel of hundreds of experts, commissioned by the UN, also came to this conclusion a few years ago. You can read an article about this report on this page of the UN website:

Moreover, regerenative agriculture would be able to capture and store a large part of antopogenic carbon emissions faster than planting new forests could.

These and other aspects of our agriculture are what I want to talk about further in this blog in the future. Agriculture is one of the central issues in the relationship of humans to the biosphere, and we can and must transform it from a form of warfare to one of cooperation, coherence, symbiosis and harmony. And there áre ways of doing this, even fairly quickly and with more chance of success than decarbonising the economy.

Our war against the planet has several more fronts: industrial sea fishing with trawler nets, mining, international transport by land, sea and air, and of course energy supply through fossil fuels and nuclear power, and so on and so forth.

I won't go into all of these fronts now, but the same pattern is evident in all of these domains.

When we speak of a war against the planet, it also presupposes a purpose and a benefit that we hope to gain from that struggle.

As with most wars, I think we can say that the purpose of this war is primarily material gain: just as powerful empires and nation states attacked other countries in order to incorporate them into their territory, and to appropriate the natural resources and labor of the conquered territories, so you could say that our war against the planet is aimed at extracting as much value as possible from the biosphere and converting that value into material goods and money.

The term war is appropriate because extraction is not done in respect for the nature of the ecosystems in question, attunement with all the interdependent processes and biological cycles, and reverence for the inherent value of life, but is enforced through domination, by "force" and without regard for the resulting destruction.

Jason Hickel, in his magisterial work 'Less Is More - How Degrowth Will Save The World', gives a thoroughly argued and documented view of the mechanisms of that process and how that process is depleting our planet .

As an economic anthropologist, Hickel paints a sweeping panorama of the history and causes of this war of extraction. Another time I want to go into more detail about this book, but for now I would already highly recommend it for anyone interested in the broader picture of what our present form of economy is doing to our planet.

But beyond the aspect of material gain and extraction, it seems to me that there is another aspect to our fight against our biotope, and that aspect possibly goes back to an even deeper layer. Material gain does not seem to me to be enough of an explanation for the savagery which often accompanies the process of domination and extraction, just as it seems insufficient as a motivation for the savagery which always seems to occur in times of war . And as we are now seeing again in Ukraine, no one is safe during a war. Warfare always involves often extreme violence towards the civilian population. Sometimes this is "collateral damage," as it is euphimistically called, and sometimes it is targeted violence with the intention of causing as many deaths as possible, seemingly out of a strange kind of murderousness that is hard to grasp. Somehow this 'extra' cruelty, which seems unnecessary merely to obtain goals of control and extraction, seems to be related to an aspect of ourselves that we do not often get to address. It seems to me desirable to explore that aspect further, if we really want to understand what we are doing.

Indeed, this seems to me to be equally the case in the war we are waging against the planet. ‘Collateral damage’ in that war can consist of the bycatch of trawl nets, but we sometimes also ruthlessly attack life out of something that can only be called a blind murderousness, where, as in Bucha, a completely senseless slaughter takes place that is incomprehensible and repugnant. The annual slaughter of dolphins near the Faroe Islands is one such moment where one might wonder what possesses our species.

Slaughter of more than 1400 dolphins, Faeröer, September 2021 .

But an annual mass hunt like the one near the Faroe Islands has many equivalents in all parts of the world. A recurring factor here is the total denial of the intrinsic value of the creatures in question, the lack of a felt awareness of our connection with the animals (and plants) that, like us, are part of our 'shared body', our biosphere, and a strange kind of aversion that humans seem to harbor at times towards their own biotope (and by extension towards themselves).

American philosopher and author Norman O' Brown already stated in the 1950s in his monumental work 'Life Against Death' that mankind is unconsciously steering towards its own destruction, and I think that many of us would no longer find this statement exaggerated. And just as this apparent death wish is also expressed through the now once again real possibility of a nuclear war, we can also recognize it in the unnecessary violence against the other beings with whom we share our biosphere, and against that biosphere as a whole. Considering the biosphere as something separate from us, above us and fundamentally separated from us, is in itself as conviction part of the problem. If we consider the biosphere as one indivisible whole with which we are also indissolubly connected, it becomes clear that we are actually engaged in a war with ourselves.

A pile of buffalo skulls, around 1875. Photo Wikipedia

A war is always waged from within a story, a mythology. This story always serves as the justification for the violence, and also helps to strip the opponent of value and the right to life.

In the case of the war against the planet, that narrative helps to strip the living fabric of the planet of intrinsic value: it is simply an essentially dead collection of resources, which we may use and abuse to our heart's content. Dolphins as much as chickens, cattle, rainforests or rivers, they are just so many forms of 'resources', things that have value only in light of their usefulness to us, and with which we can do what we want.

The story that provides us with all possible reasons, justification and moral 'superiority' to wage this war is the story of our paradigm, our cosmology, our beliefs about the world and man's place in it.

I find myself time and again, in my research on the state of the planet, delving more deeply into the essence and history of this story, because I now believe that we have no chance of stopping our war on the biosphere if we do not begin to see our story for what it is: a myth, a fantasy, a delusion. A myth which, like all myths, once maybe had a role to play in our development, but which we now need to put an end to in the run-up to a new story.

We all have to start writing that new story, and the first sentences of that story are already being written, in all parts of the world, and in all domains of human creativity and knowledge: science, art, religion, spirituality and mysticism, grassroots activism, politics, and so on.

An alternative to this war against the planet is possible. In all spheres of human activity, a different relationship of man to planet is being developed.

Whether in agriculture, fisheries, energy, consumption patterns, mobility and so on, but also in economics, international trade and development, social services, labor and so on...everywhere visions are emerging that foreshadow the possibility of a radically different world.

The relationship of humans to the biosphere in that story will no longer be determined by concepts such as control, domination and unbridled extraction, but by ever-increasing cooperation with and strengthening of ecosystems at all possible scales, based on a deepening awareness of the unity of all life on our planet.

This will require a profound shift in our story, because from the old story such a change is almost unthinkable.

More on that on this blog in the near future.

In anticipation, I would like to suggest some questions for contemplation.

I would like to invite you to take some time from time to time to examine what you believe about the world and about yourself. To this end, at the end of blog posts I will regularly ask questions that can guide this examination.

The intention is to do this without judgment. It is simply an exploration of beliefs that you are currently harboring.

Set aside some time when you cannot be disturbed.

Take time to unwind. If you practice certain forms of meditation or yoga, you can use these to enter into a state of free attention.

You can first use the following questions to guide your exploration of your beliefs. For some questions, the connection to the content of the blog post may not seem obvious, but those connections may become clear as you go along.

- Do you believe that the earth is an essentially dead lump of matter? If not, what is the nature of our planet?

- What do you believe about the phenomenon 'life'? Is it an accidental byproduct of physical processes in a dead universe? What do you believe about evolution?

- What do you believe about the relationship of humans to the biosphere in which they live? Is there a hierarchy to this relationship?

- Do you believe that everything that happens in the world can be reduced to laws of causality, and of 'laws of nature'?

- What do you believe about the phenomenon that we call 'consciousness'?

Write down your spontaneous answers to these questions. It doesn't matter what these answers are, the point is to observe your reactions in a spontaneous way and identify the beliefs that naturally emerge as strongest, whatever they may be. One or more of the questions may elicit a strong response on its own.

Keep your answers if you want to participate in this exercise, because in my upcoming texts on paradigm and cosmology of our society I will ask you to refer to those answers .

Keep in mind that these are all ideas. We always look at all our reality through glasses of ideas and concepts.

Now we are going to take a closer look at the glasses themselves.

And that is what I want to do when I talk about paradigm.

In the near future, before I will continue about our paradigms, you can expect a text about our use of words regarding 'ecology', and how it may be a good idea

not to use certain words anymore.

Until then I wish you all the best.

Let us keep the victims of wars worldwide in our thoughts, not only when we see the images from Ukraine, but continuously and without closing our hearts.



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