By Robert R. Thomas
Human supremacy, according to Derrick Jensen, is a contradiction in terms. In The Myth of Human Supremacy, Jensen’s impassioned and intelligent analysis of the myth that proclaims we humans are superior beings, posits his approach with essential questions like, superior to what and whom? and the how and the why of that?
Dedicated to Planet Earth, the book’s opening quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions sets Jensen’s platform: “Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the universe.”
Jensen amplifies Vonnegut : “How we behave in the world is profoundly influenced by how we experience the world which is profoundly influenced by what we believe about the world. Our collective behavior is killing the planet.” Jensen’s question is “Why?”—especially if humans are the superior beings? Why would they exterminate themselves and Mother Earth?
John Kenneth Galbraith offers an answer: “The modern conservative [and, I would say, the human supremacist] is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; and that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
Jensen follows with a searing array of examples of human supremacism from the absurd unquestioned beliefs that shore up culture and religion to the murdering of the oceans. His final example is human sociopathy. After quoting a description of sociopathy, Jensen concludes, “This is human supremacism.”
He begins his dissection of human supremacist mythology in earnest with Chapter 1, “The Great Chain of Being,” the Mother of all human supremacist myths, right up there with religious and historical mythologies. Or, civilization, as the supremacists call their vision of reality.
Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture, states Jensen. “The creation of these ideologies of domination not only eases or erases the consciences of the perpetrators but makes resistance to these perpetrators seem futile.”
Myths are the stories of the people; they are not necessarily more than that. According to Jensen, religion is often the next line of defense in upholding the tenets of the “Great Chain of Being” myth. We are superior because God says we are. “Nothing to dispute here,” he replies. “Being number one makes it so much easier to rationalize exploiting everyone.” No critical thinking need apply.
Jensen turns from religious mythology to the Darwinian capitalism of our dominant economic model, based as it is on the insane notion that selfish individuals all attempting to maximally exploit each other will somehow create stable and healthy human communities.
“Why,” he asks, “don’t they use the word neighbor instead of competitor? While human supremacists are busy destroying life and asking why any being would ‘waste energy’ helping competitors, bacteria are busy helping each other gain resistance to antibiotics, helping each other to survive.”
Why doesn’t everybody see this?
“I guess,” Jensen answers, “it might be that any culture that would kill the planet would use any means necessary including of course philosophy to avoid perceiving the consequences of his actions and to ignore even the most straightforward logic.”
Referencing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both the Goethe poem and Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” Jensen says, “When I think of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,“ I think of the utter insanity, the megalomania, the narcissism, the sociopathology of believing that you know better than the real world what is good for the real world.” He adds, “I think of this culture’s stupidity, arrogance, and destructiveness.”
Jensen investigates the authoritarian technics of hierarchical verticality in management and ideology. Technics are technical terms, details, and methods of technology. As systemic controllers, how technocrats view the world affects the world. He quotes extensively from Lewis Mumford’s Authoritarian and Democratic Technics (1964) because Mumford helped him understand the dynamics of authoritative technics.
“My thesis,” writes Mumford, “to put it bluntly, is that from late Neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side-by-side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system–centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other [hu]man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.”
Cooperation, co-option, corporations
For Jensen, cooperation in the context of supremacist culture differs markedly from reading and responding to a community’s needs and its larger biotic communities. Cooperation in the dominant authoritarian culture means the creation of Mumford’s ”complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts —the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy.”
Despite the fact that “this organizational form does bring lots of benefits (that is, for the few at the expense of the many, including nonhumans),” Jensen adds that “it’s also completely fantastic at getting large numbers of perhaps otherwise moral people to act in profoundly immoral ways.” His example of the “cooperation” and “co-option” involved in the extermination of the cod, from corporations to research scientists to fishermen to vessel builders to lobbyists, due to managing them to death is a shocking perspective of our dominant culture’s authoritarian technics at work killing the planet.
“For all its redoubtable constructive achievements, authoritarian technics expressed a deep hostility to life,” wrote Mumford.
For Jensen, “the notion of being so smart that we will kill the planet is pretty much the ultimate oxymoron (emphasis on moron).” Of all Jensen’s many examples of big brain inadequacy, the most potent is: “Sadly, the one problem it seems nonhumans and humans and their communities have yet to be able to solve is the sociopathy of human supremacists.”
“Of course,” Jensen writes, “business as usual can’t continue forever. I understood that when I was a child. We all— by which I mean those of us with any sense whatsoever—know this can’t go on; you can’t continue to subtract life and add toxics forever.”
“I don’t know why more people don’t understand this,” he says. “I guess because unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture. And I guess because most members of this culture have been inculcated into not caring about life on this planet.”
Jensen concludes, “That last sentence alone is enough to damn a belief in human supremacism.”
When I finished reading his book, the old philosopher in me sat staring up through the giant maple trees in my yard pondering his insights. Two quotes popped into my whirring brain.
For George Orwell, “The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.”
A Yugoslavian proverb, as quoted in The 2548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (2001) by Robert Byrne, is even more succinct: “Tell the truth, then run.”
Derrick Jensen has told the truth, then held his ground. Critical thinking and courage are formidable approaches to truth. The Myth of Human Supremacy is my choice for best read of the year on truth vs. alternate realities.
EVM reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.