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perspectives on the significance of humanity, the earth, and how we can help.

March 16, 2014

Humans as all that matter.

One view of humanity, I would say the dominate view, is that we are all that is important on the earth. It is only we humans who have souls, it is only we who can be saved and live for eternity. The earth will be destroyed, there will be a new earth, etc.

According to this perspective, animals don’t have souls, plants don’t have souls, the earth is not alive. Our lives on this planet are described as having the duration of a blink of an eye. The suffering we experience here, although terrible, is but light and momentary trouble. Since our lives are brief and the earth will be destroyed and re-made, why would anyone care about what happens to Earth? We are only here for a moment. Life on this earth will end. Beyond lies eternity. Why would anyone give any serious consideration to taking care of this planet?

As you might guess, this view comes from Christian tradition, which is dominate here in the United States where I live. This worldview is also shared by people who live in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, other parts of North America, as well as Latin and South America, and other parts of the world. Everywhere Christianity has spread, you can find this worldview.

As the world has become more westernized, adopting more western values, this western world view has been taking hold in non-Christian countries such as India and China. People in India and China have different views of the afterlife than most people living in Western society, but they have a similar perspective of humanity.. that humans are all that matter, or at least, what matte most, and that the earth therefore can continue to be exploited.

One does not have to have a religious perspective to see humanity as all that is important. People who are not religious, and who do not believe in the afterlife also tend to think of humanity as all that matters. Why?

If our lives are short and death is imminent, then.. is there really any meaning to anything? If there is nothing but nothingness beyond death, then why should we care what we do to the earth, since we will be dead soon, and nothing will matter to us after we have died?

This is incredibly self-centered of course, but when contemplating one’s own mortality, it can be rather easy to be self-centered. If one is self-centered, and going to die soon, then why care about the earth?

This view, although quite different from the religious view, shares one thing in common with the religious view.. humans are all that is significant, and the earth is not significant at all. Living with this view leads to the death of the earth.

Humans as parasites.

Some scientists and others have come to see humans as parasites. We are a plague on the earth, and it would be best if humans did not exist at all. Some people who think in this way do care for the earth and work to save it from us. Others who have this view fall into the trap of nihilism.. the belief that all things are meaningless. A nihilist is not going to take care of the earth.

Even if people who believe humans are parasites do help the earth, they might not be taking very good care of themselves, because they think of themselves as parasites. They might not be taking good care of other either. This can lead to destructive habits, such as eating poorly and waging wars, which are bad for us, and bad for the earth.

The view that all humans are parasites does not exactly help the earth, if people take on destructive habits or become nihilists.

Does humanity matter?

Why does finding significance in our humanity matter? It would depend on how we think we are significant. If we think of ourselves as a species, and not just as isolated individuals wrapped up in our individual needs and desires, we can not only take better care of ourselves and each other, but take better care of the earth as well.

We can think of ourselves as significant individuals at least in part because we are part of the whole of humanity. Is the whole of humanity significant?

Finding the significance in humanity.. that can be tough. That is something that is left up to the individual. Most individuals find the significance of humanity in certain dominate religious teachings.. but that does not help the earth.

Others will look to the arts to find significance in humanity.. the great works of literature, art, and music. Yes, these are beyond amazing, and we can be elevated and inspired by the great writers, artists, and musicians. We can be glad we are, like them, human. But this does not necessarily help the earth either.

The appreciation of art of any kind is subjective and fleeting, because we all have our own ways of experiencing great art, and also because our lives are quite short. Yes, works of art, such as paintings hanging in museums and great classical compositions, can be enjoyed by generation after generation of people. But people still die.

Art, at its best, can raise our awareness of humanity, and make us think humanity is worth saving. But, it still takes a leap of thought to realize that to save humanity is to save the earth. We tend to think of saving humanity more in the short term. Some of us give to charity, volunteer at food banks, or help the homeless.. all great things to do, but these are temporary solutions.

We all live here.

If we don’t save the earth, then we will not save humanity, even if we find humanity to be significant.

We all live here. Even if we believe humanity is far more significant than any plants or animals, we can still work to save the earth.. because we find humanity to be significant and worth preserving. We all live on this planet. We don’t have technology that is advanced enough that we can transport ourselves to other planets, where we can continue going about our lives. We are stuck on this planet. It is where we humans live. If we kill the planet, we kill humanity. It is that simple.

Enlightened self-interest really can lead people to care about the earth, if our self-interest is not focused on our individual selves, but instead is focused on our collective self.. ourselves as a species. If we care about ourselves as a species, we will want to save the earth, because saving the earth is saving ourselves.

We are not the most significant species, but are part of all that is.

It is possible, though not especially popular, to believe that humanity is no more (nor less) significant than plants and animals on this earth, and that humanity is no more or less significant than the earth itself.

If we view everything as being interconnected, and believe that everything is significant, then we will want to save the earth, not only because we all live on earth, but because everything else on earth lives here too, and because we are all part of the earth.

Getting to a new worldview.

Trying to shift into this perspective can be very difficult. It seems not in our nature to believe that life is not all about us. Life is not all about us? That seems crazy!

Religions tend to focus on us. Salvation of one kind or another is offered by all the major faiths. If we care only about our own salvation and having a good afterlife, we will not care about the earth.

Christianity and Islam teach us there is a paradise awaiting us. Many Jews believe in the afterlife as well. The focus is on some place to go beyond death, and beyond the earth. This perspective can lead to the disregard and destruction of the earth.

The Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, teach that we are continually reincarnated until we burn off all our negative karma. Then, we are not reincarnated, and reach a state of nirvana, which is sometimes explained as being a state of eternal bliss, and sometimes explained as the simple elimination of the self and the self fading into nothingness. Reincarnation is eventual (though different) salvation. It’s self-salvation, instead of being saved by a deity. Reincarnation, like Western versions of salvation, is about the self.

I am not saying you have to abandon your religion to care about saving the earth. What I am doing is pointing out how salvation-oriented worldviews contribute to the destruction of this planet. It is possible to be religious and care about the earth too. Many pagans do exactly this. However, if, like most humans on this earth, you practice one of the 5 largest world religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam), when you are attending a religious service,  you will not likely hear many, or any teachings about caring for the earth. If you are religious, you will likely have to adopt a worldview about caring for the earth without any help or encouragement from your religious leaders, teachers, or sacred books.

It is not only religions that indoctrinate us to focus on ourselves. The culture of consumerism teaches us this too.

Advertising is just about everywhere. The message of advertising is simple: purchase this product or service and you will be happy. Not all advertising is false. Money can actually buy happiness. We can really take great joy in eating at a particular restaurant, or buying a new car or television. This is true. But this happiness is temporary. The meal will end, the car will break down, the TV set will stop working. These things are temporary.

If happiness is temporary, maybe we won’t spend so much time chasing happiness. We will likely, and ironically, be more happy if we stop trying so hard to be happy. If we turn a blind eye to advertising, and find different forms of happiness, we can take at least some of the focus off ourselves. Advertising is only about pleasing the self. If we ignore advertising, and find other ways of being happy, we can put less focus on ourselves. If we focus less on ourselves, we are more free to focus on others, and on this planet.

Happiness that is not self-focused will help us and the earth.

It is possible (though it will take some practice) to find happiness, not only in ourselves, but in caring for each other. If we find happiness in taking care of humanity, we can then find happiness in caring for the earth, as long as we have the understanding that there is no way to truly care for humanity without taking care of the earth.

Motion before emotion.

Sometimes we have to choose to do things that will make us happy before we feel happy about doing these things.

For example.. choosing to exercise. We will probably feel more happy if we are fit than if we are overweight and not feeling well. However, we have to choose to go to exercise while we are still in our overweight miserable state. This is difficult. This requires will. This requires motion before emotion.

Motion before emotion: Recycling.

Adopting a more environmentally friendly lifestyle might not make us happy at first. If we are not used to separating what we throw away into several piles, this might not make us happy at first. Many people do not recycle because it is easier to throw everything in the same bin.

Recycling requires that a choice be made to spend more time sifting through what we throw out, and putting things in different places. This takes time, and can be messy. Messy chores that take time.. this sort of thing might not make us happy, at least at first. In order to start recycling, people have to put motion before emotion. We have to choose to recycle, even though it doesn’t make us happy, at least not at first.

After we have been recycling for awhile, we might, and probably will, start to feel happy about it. We can feel glad we are doing our part to help the planet. We can look at all that we put in the recycling bin or bins each week, and take comfort that all this stuff is not going to pollute the earth, but will instead be recycled and re-used. If this stuff is re-used, then less stuff will need to be extracted from the earth to make new stuff. And this is great! We can feel good about this. We can feel happy about recycling.

Motion before emotion: Transportation.

Choosing to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle:

Yes, I know, it can be a real drag to change our transportation habits. Driving a huge SUV or pickup truck might feel more pleasurable than driving a smaller vehicle that uses less gas. It might be difficult for people to make the choice to drive a more efficient vehicle. It might be awhile before a person who chooses to drive a smaller and more efficient vehicle starts to enjoy driving that vehicle, but it can happen.

Carpool.

There are other transportation choices we can make that will help the earth.  We can carpool. Yes, this can also be an uncomfortable change, especially at first. If we carpool, we lose some of our autonomy. We have to be up, dressed and ready to be on time to carpool, because others are depending on us. If others in our carpool are irresponsible, we might end up being late for work. Also, we cannot choose individually when we will leave work. We have to leave together as a group.

Coming together as a group and carpooling might not be a bad experience though, it might even, eventually be fun. Carpooling can reduce loneliness and bring about a sense of connection with more people. And this can be a good thing. Carpooling is worth considering.

Riding a bus:

Yes, riding a bus can be inconvenient. It takes greater self-discipline and more patience to ride a bus then to drive a car here and there. To ride a bus requires adjusting our lives so that we can get to the bus on time, plan the right routes to ride, etc. As I mentioned, this requires self-discipline and patience. It is can be difficult to develop self-discipline and patience, but these are very important virtues to cultivate.

There is another benefit to riding the bus: more interaction with other people. True, some of the people on the bus we might not like. Some might be a nuisance. But there are many people we will meet on the bus who we would not otherwise meet. Many of these people we will find we start to like. We can learn from these people too. We can learn about other cultures, and other lives. This learning expands our view of humanity, and gives us a greater appreciation for humanity. If we have greater appreciation for humanity, we will more likely want to help humanity, and therefore, help the earth.

Buy a bike.

Weather permitting.. bicycles can be an excellent means of transportation. Some people who choose to ride a bike to help save the earth might not be exactly excited about riding a bike to work or school or to the store. But such people might actually discover there is joy in riding a bike. It can be a fun experience. Also, riding a bike burns calories, and this can make us more healthy. People who are healthy and physically fit often tend to be more happy than those who are not.

And, while riding a bike, one has an unobstructed view of life. It is more possible to see beauty while riding a bike than while driving a car. Riding a bike can give us a greater appreciation for the earth than driving a car. If we have a greater appreciation of the earth, we will more want to help the earth.

Walk.

Yes. Some places we go to are within walking distance. Weather permitting, (and if one lives in a safe enough neighborhood that one can walk through it without encountering harm), walking can be great. Walking is exercise, which is good for us. If we choose to walk with others, we shall enjoy interacting with them. If we choose to walk alone, we will have time to process our thoughts, and contemplate life, which can be a very good thing.

Walking is also good for us because we can see more of life. There is beauty to be found even in urban neighborhoods. If we see and appreciate more beauty, we will then, if we think about it, want to preserve that beauty.

Motion before emotion: Changing what we eat.

Yes, the world would be a better place if we all became vegans. But we don’t all have to become vegans or vegetarians. If all of us choose to eat just a little less meat, the earth will become a far better place.

Almost all livestock is raised in horrible conditions on massive factory farms. Massive factory farms produce massive amounts of waste, which pollutes the earth.

Eating less meat creates less demands for meat, which means less livestock will need to be raised to supply the meat, which means there will be less livestock taking up space on factory farms, which means there will be less waste produced by factory farms, which means there will be less waste polluting the earth.

Even skipping meat once a week can have great benefits for the earth.

Yes, it can be difficult, at least at first, to make even minor changes in our diet. Most of us love to eat meat. Eating a meal without meat can, at first be a rather un-fulfilling experience. Changing our diet, even a little bit, requires motion before emotion. It requires patience and self-discipline, which are good things to develop.

Choosing to eat less meat might require not eating out all the time. Changing our diet might even require cooking.

Cooking might not be fun to learn. Cooking might require motion before emotion. But there are benefits to cooking. If you cook, you can choose to cook healthy food, which is good for you. If you cook instead of eating at restaurants all the time, you will save money. If you cook, you might not be losing any more time then you would be at a restaurant, if the kind of restaurants you go to are those that require sitting around for awhile before you are served your food.

Cooking at home is also good because cooking can produce less waste than eating at restaurants, especially fast food restaurants. Have you ever finished a meal at a fast food restaurant, then looked at the huge pile of garbage on your tray, which will be eventually transported to a landfill? It’s shocking. Cardboard, paper, foil and plastic. All sitting there. Some of it could be recycled, but it’s highly unlikely that any of it will be recycled. It will all go to a landfill, and sit there in the earth, for thousands of years. Just because you wanted a combo meal.

Also, most restaurants serve meat that has been raised on factory farms. I’ve already explained why factory farms are destructive. If you are a meat eater who cooks at home, and have the money, you can choose to purchase meat from animals that were raised and killed humanely on small farms that use environmentally sustainable practices. This is far better than purchasing meat that has been raised on factory farms.

Even if you do buy meat that has been raised on factory farms, at least you are throwing away less stuff. Yes, meat is usually wrapped in the sort of plastic which can’t be recycled. Yes, most meat usually is packaged partly in styrofoam, which also cannot be recycled. But, you will still be throwing away less stuff than if you are eating a meal from a fast food place.

Choosing what you eat and where you eat it can really help the earth.

It’s not too late.

We can change. Before we change our habits, we need to change our perspective. It will really help us change our habits and thereby help the earth if we first change our perspective about ourselves. If we focus less on ourselves and our own individual happiness or salvation, and focus more on humanity as a whole, we can then change our perspective so that we focus more on the earth, where humanity lives.

We can change our perspectives. We can change our habits. We can improve our lives. We can help the planet.

If you are reading this, right now, then you know it is not too late to help. It is not too late to change your perspectives and change your habits. It is not too late to help humanity. Most importantly, it is not too late to help the earth.

——————————-

For further reading on perspectives of humanity and religion, and how the earth is affected by people who have various perspectives, I recommend a rather challenging but enlightening book: The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 17, 2014 4:00 AM

    Yes, it’s all about living consciously. Makes it all too easy for me.
    I know that we are all finding our own way at this time.
    Much appreciation for your very succinct writings Tom.

    You will not be surprised to hear that, yes, I do have a poem that addresses these issues. Will you get out of my head! Lol

    http://gailsingle.wordpress.com/my-poems/when-mother-calls/

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