I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow mortal!
From Robert Burns’ To a Mouse
In a few brief brilliant lines the poet Burns conveys a paradox as profound as it is essential, as mysterious as it is misunderstood. Since the dawn of human consciousness, we have described ourselves as being intrinsically apart from Nature, whether by dint of divine creation or superior intelligence or the ability to laugh. We have christened ourselves the stewards of our habitat, and we have taken no prisoners during our mission to go forth, multiply and create dominion.
At the same time we indubitably share the fate of all of our other earth-born companions, indeed, the fate of all species, eventually, in our common mortality. We are, after all, Nature’s creatures, no matter what our collective talents have allowed us to achieve. But we have reached a position in the hierarchy of the living world where the threat to our survival comes not from other life forms, but from ourselves, with a destructive capacity that is total.
The earth has been drawn and quartered: there isn’t an inch that humankind claims not to have a claim upon, and with the march of globalisation the human footprint is eroding the magnificent diversification of non-human life around us.
Is it astonishing to learn that there are hardly 4,000 tigers living in the wild? And that endangered species include whales, sea lions, pandas, dolphins, gorillas, elephants and rhinos? Or that we are in the midst of a mass extinction, the likes of which has not occurred on our pale blue dot since the age of the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago?
The majority of the world has embraced an economic system that rewards the very rich at the expense of the lower 99 percent, a system that is founded upon the ill-conceived notion of limitless growth and limitless exploitation of cheap labour. It is a system that any thinking school kid would recognise as unsustainable. We are now reaping the fruits of such unsustainability: the globe is heating up, organisms are dying off at unprecedented rates, and the next big war will surely be our very last.
I find it liberating to know that we are mortal. As George Harrison sang, all things must pass, and as another poet wrote, “Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither” (King Lear, Act V, Scene 2).
But I cherish nonetheless the hope that we may indeed prove unique—not by virtue of soul or self-proclamation or our ability to hoard or to levy taxes—but by drawing on the power of human love to reimagine our ideals. The age of conquest is passé: let an age of harmony among all living things begin.
Now that would be a difference to celebrate.
Dr. Garcia is a Philadelphia-born poet, novelist and physician who now resides in New Zealand. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.