We humans have been trying to understand our reality, while working hard to mask it, since our first spark of awareness, perhaps seven million years ago. Our quest has been dominated by a biological imperative to, initially, survive, over time, thrive; and a deep desire to find an alternative truth to shield ourselves from the pain of living and make sense of life’s essential meaning.
For a longtime we survived by carefully examining our environment, seizing opportunities – an injured animal became dinner – and avoiding danger. If reality, in the form of sharp teeth, poisonous or edible plants, and possible places of safe shelter, wasn’t seen clearly the consequence was death.
Fire, farming, tools, and social organization emerged as methods to improve our circumstances, to become the danger. These innovations enabled us to alter our surroundings in ways that made our lives easier; burning forests to chase out and harvest the creatures living within, making room for agricultural lands. We hunted species to extinction, including, most likely, other types of humanoids, and transmogrified woodlands into deserts. But we weren’t yet sufficiently powerful to disturb the largest cycles at work: the coming and going of seasons; the density of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Fear, and longing for something better, prompted us to search for imaginary friends. Our interactions with what we could see initially shaped our understanding of the powerful beings we believed were hidden. Our first gods were fashioned on the forces of nature, lodged on earth: breathing from a special cave; hidden in a tree knot. These deities were tied to our corporeal needs: fertility, protection, harvests.
As our ecological control advanced, through the development of settlements around which wilderness was cleared, roads and irrigation channels, and sophisticated farming, we removed the immortals from the ground and put them in the sky, beaming down at us from the darkness as infinite pricks and patterns of light. Spirituality largely shifted from a physical presence that we visited, to something that could be detected, through the right methods, everywhere. The gods – increasingly, just one – continued to care about our corporeal needs, but were more concerned about what happened to our non-physical wants; our “souls.” This, in turn, untied us from ancestral homes, launching a process of detachment from place that cyberspace is now perfecting. No longer required to give obeisance to divinities that dwelled in specific locations, we were free to roam around the earth.
For a longtime we mostly ordered our social relationships based on violent, theological, and economic power, creating endless hierarchies that linger in card decks, chess boards, and Monopoly, elements of which remain actively present. Beneath the scrim of “royalty” – never more than one percent of the population – men dominated women and children, races subjugated one another, those with capital enslaved those without. Meaning as defined by spirituality or philosophy intermingled, reinforced, or skirmished with meaning as determined by wealth or influence.
Roughly a millennium ago, our relationship to survival and meaning began to fundamentally change, principally as a result of an accelerated understanding, and mastery, of reality. The development of knowledge, science, and the rule of law hammered against the chains that’d tightly bound us to being subject to nature’s, the lord’s, or the Lord’s, way. The invention of the chimney, eight hundred years past, started the process of household room differentiation, multi-story buildings, and the enablement of a diversity of family and commercial arrangements, a shifting of power structures. The printing press triggered an era of mass communication and freedom of thought that continues to explode six hundred years after its introduction. In well less than two hundred years, deployment of the gasoline-powered engine altered the world’s mobility, shape, smell, and temperature.
This period of productivity, and the wealth it created, enlarged our ability to mold our reality and challenged our sense of meaning. During current lifetimes our relationship with nature, as a force apart from ourselves, has been almost completely severed, as we’ve shaped the environment into our preferred state. We’re more intimate with asphalt than soil, expert in consumer brands and celebrities know nothing about the insects that inhabit sidewalk cracks. We need to understand how to cross the street, or summon a shared ride, not the safest way to traverse the savannah or enjoy a stroll through a meadow. Our feet rarely touch anything that wasn’t placed there by humans; the only thing we see that we didn’t choose to be within our sight is the sky. Even the ocean, still leashed to the moon, rises by our command.
Most of us, apart from scientists and farmers, don’t need to understand authentic truth, if that still has any meaning; not in the way our ancestors did to survive. That, its complexity and faraway origin – we visit supermarkets, not farms; see politicians on handheld devices, not at the mall; consume infotainment made in an anonymous studio-bunker – has stretched our ability to fact-check almost anything. We have no greater insights into how a television works than how a now-forgotten god made rain. We exist in a kind of castle in the sky.
Today is certainly better than a million yesterdays’ ago, at least for us humans. We live longer, arguably happier, certainly more luxurious, lives. Our mastery of the environment has enabled us to upend old power dynamics, particularly between genders, but also related to race and sexual preference. In a fingernail of history, a slice of the world’s population has fought their way to an unprecedented level of equality and wealth. Less than one hundred years ago American women won the right to vote; it’s been just 50 years since the same guarantee was fully extended to African-Americans, still an unfinished project. Fifteen years previously sodomy was illegal in Red States.
In this moment, surrounded by the bounties of increasingly pesticide-free agriculture, on the precipice of a complete collapse of aquatic and terrestrial species and the onset of unstoppable human-induced climate change, surrounded by whatever gods, or not, we choose, we should look around at what we have wrought. It’s okay to nod our heads in satisfaction.
Not all of us have arrived at the same place. There are multiple realities: a Russian bomb just detonated in Syria, blowing the limbs off a 12 year old girl; a circle of tribal elders in South Dakota is blocking a bulldozer poised to destroy a sacred place to which a monetary value cannot be assigned; a steady stream of women is carrying mud bricks to a construction site in India on their heads; a 50-year old man is sitting in a single-wide trailer in Idaho, polishing his gun and nursing his grudges.
We started our journey so many years ago, desperately seeking to survive, trembling in fear, protected by a thin cloak of gods. We thrived by developing deep insights into our physical environment, what we could touch and manipulate, bolstered by a myriad of beliefs about what it all means. Since then, our corporeal and metaphysical realities have morphed into something that resembles the faraway stars of which the ancients tried to make sense. Reality now takes the form of sharp tweets, possibly fictitious news bulletins, and monetary transactions that appear as numbers on a computer screen. It cannot be touched or smelt.
From the hilltop we’ve so cleverly erected, built on the bones of vanquished species and activists’ blood, an infinite number of futures can be seen. It’ll take new skills, keen observations, revolutionarily different mindsets, to thrive in the reality that we’ve made. What’s at stake isn’t so much our lives, but our ways of living, who gets to decide how truth is defined, what ecologies, cultures and relationships are allowed to survive and flourish.
History doesn’t bend towards a particular kind of justice; it only does so if we push it in that direction. To do so we need to see our circumstances, and how they’ve been created, quite clearly. The winning creators of dominant reality – there may be many or few – will determine what’s to come.