The Danger of Superiority
From environmental degradation to racism. Here, I propose a humble cure.
Maybe you’ve felt this before — the exhaustion that comes along with setting yourself up as “superior” to others. It’s a tiring feat, to try to be better than someone else, always. Maybe you’ve fallen into this role in your family, at your place of work, or in your neighborhood. You are acting, you are supplicating for attention, and then, you may get lonely “up” there. Looking down at other beings — sentient or not — is dangerous, and I’ll explain why.
A foundational example of the danger of superiority has swept through modern humanity in the form of speciesism. This idea, that humans are superior to animals, can be traced back to the beginning of what we now know as Christianity, and the story of creation. Adam and Eve were made by God, superior to everything else in the Garden of Eden (even though a snake outsmarted them), and now, over 2,000 years later, we’re rumbling with the implications of believing we are better than anything else on this earth. What a lonely feeling. To fundamentally believe you are above nature — the animals, plants, and beauty that surrounds you — causes a crisis in the human experience. We can’t relate. We’re isolated in a world where we don’t belong, because we actually think we’re better than all of it.
The belief we are better than nature, has had its implications. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the conversation surrounding humans impact on the environment truly began. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was founded literally, due to a river in Ohio that kept spontaneously catching on fire because of the amount of chemical and oil pollutants in it. The residents had enough, Time magazine featured an article about the fire, and the rest is history (in the form of environmentalism). But, I want to pose the question — is environmentalism enough? This movement claims to be about “protecting the environment” but what are we protecting the environment from? Ourselves? Yes. That is the answer, and that is the problem. We are not separate from the environment, we are the environment. We are nature, nature is us. To believe anything but is still rooted in the dangerous, exhausting, and isolating belief that we are better than nature. To heal nature, we must heal ourselves. Michael Jackson said it perfectly — always start with the man in the mirror.
Remember when we used to believe we were the center of the universe, seriously? Ptolemy, an ancient scientist who lived in the first century, proposed the geocentric theory, made the math work for his theory, and this was accepted as truth for centuries. Later, Copernicus came along and proposed that the sun is the center of our galaxy and we are just one planet revolving around just one sun. It wasn’t until 1990 that we really began our modern ascent into insignificance. It was this year that we were gifted with Carl Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot photograph. For the first time, we were able to witness how inconceivably small we are.
I hope you’ve read these timeless words by Sagan on the photograph above. Remember that, always. This, in my opinion, is the cure for speciesism, it’s the cure for racism, it’s the cure for hopelessness and despondence. When you believe you’re better than your surroundings — nature or neighbors — it’s isolating. When you believe you’re an integral element of your surroundings — nature and neighbors — you fundamentally believe that you belong. You know you are a part of it, not separate. Your actions matter. You are important. You are vital.
So, take a step back (a 4 billion mile step back) and look again at that photograph. This is our ascent into insignificance. Find solace in how small we are, and humble yourself accordingly. It will feel better.