Creating sustainability: Rethinking oral cultures

Adam Kranz

If people took the science about climate change seriously, gas station attendants would turn off the pumps. Coal miners would put coal back in the ground — with shovels. The National Guard would occupy the refineries, confiscate the tankers and shut down the pipelines.

It would be an international state of emergency, with a response beyond any emergency mobilization we have had to muster before. Never before has the threat been so great, nor so pervasive.

We have now critically endangered the most fundamental support systems of our species. Yet we somehow disconnect the disasters we are already experiencing as a result of climate change and the culture that has produced them.

It is not unusual that a major scientific discovery has gone largely unnoticed and isn’t integrated by our culture as a whole. American society is not especially scientifically literate at the moment. However, I suspect a deeper factor is at work.

The gist of much of modern science has been to put us in our place amongst our brethren — the sea otters, the nudibranchs and the archaea. We are star stuff, sorted by geologic processes and organized into mutually dependent, self-interactive communities by evolution.

Yet still we think of ourselves as uniquely sentient and uniquely able to communicate. We systematically deny the rights of our non-human kin. We have forgotten the spiritual and practical lessons that once bound us to the Earth, and now we refuse to listen to science when it rediscovers the same wisdom.

Civilized humans — those who have been affected by agriculture, and later industry — have gradually become alienated from what you might think of as the social life of their land. Ecological communities depend on communication, and humans once participated directly in this communication.

This is a very practical measure — if you depend directly on the behavior of the ecosystem, it pays to know what it is experiencing — that is expressed in deeply cultural and spiritual terms. That these cultural practices and beliefs are often denigrated as superstitious by our own culture speaks to the impracticality of our current beliefs and practices.

This alienation has progressed apace with the ever-intensifying modes of production that civilized humans have engaged in. Things like writing, houses, cities, watches, school and the Internet have pulled ever more of our attention to purely human messages, as if to drown out the ever louder cries of ecological distress from the planet.

The causality here is probably not decipherable. While Crimeth Inc., a decentralized collective of activists, asserts that “alienation is the root of the problem — the devastation of the environment simply follows from it,” it seems more plausible to define the alienation as a result of modes of production that both demand and permit it.

This thesis is developed at length in David Abram’s two works, “The Spell of the Sensuous” and “Becoming Animal.” Abram contrasts the phenomenology — how the world is experienced — of oral and written cultures, and glorifies at length the intuitive beauty of an oral culture’s engagement with the physical-world-as-community.

Abram imbues the phenomenology of oral cultures with a deep appeal. However, the phenomenology of this kind of living is something people in our culture can only experience fleetingly, or after a long apprenticeship among an indigenous culture.

This is not why his idea matters. Oral cultures have only managed to live sustainably within various ecologies of the Earth for countless generations by listening to what the land is saying and valuing its messages. No culture can ever aspire to sustainability if it is deaf to the animate earth.

Our culture will never become sustainable as long as it prizes material consumption over life; as long as it bases its livelihoods on the conversion of the living into the dead. Solar panels and windmills aren’t enough. Sustainable agriculture is great, but it’s not enough.

Any environmental movement that doesn’t address this fundamental, psychopathic alienation will be too little, too late, no matter how many victories it achieves.

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