Hi, welcome to For F*ture’s Sake! In an attempt to bring some harmony to this hodgepodge of a newsletter, I'm experimenting with the format. This week, all sections will relate to one theme — Superstition. Many thanks to Daniel Meza, creator of the excellent Te Tao Tuesday, for the insight. Onwards and upwards!
Reading time: 5 minutes
Part 1 - Essay
I couldn’t bring myself to carve her eyes out. I mean, I'd no problem cutting shapes from anywhere else in the magazine, but somewhere within my rational self, I’d the absurd feeling, if I cut her up, I'd harm the person in real life.
As ridiculous as it sounds, if you think about it, most people abide by baseless superstitions. The sight of a solo magpie can fill with dread, the most cogent of Irish minds; “one for sorrow, two for joy”. A German with a death wish might toast with a glass of water, while getting your haircut on a Saturday in Mumbai, can cause you harm after nightfall.
Clearly, in the age of atomic energy, people remain deeply superstitious.
But that’s okay. Superstitions provide meaningful psychological benefits. They give us the illusion of control, especially in uncertain situations.
This was no different for our “primitive” ancestors, for whom superstition was foundational. They painted pictures, carved sculptures and weaved patterns, not so much for beauty or decoration, but to try to harness and control the whims of nature.
Humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ - Hans Moravec
Today, in spite of our superstitious nature, humans believe they hold a rational view of the world. We look to science more than faith to control, understand and improve our circumstances.
We believe science — the supreme expression of reason — will solve our problems, and set us free from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.
But that in itself is a superstition. The human delusion that we are masters of the Earth has delivered us to the precipice of an ecological nightmare.
Of course rationality has worked to a large extent: we live longer and have higher living standards than ever before. But as science increases human power, it also allows us to wreak destruction on ever larger scales.
And it makes me wonder, what can we learn from our ancient ancestors about living in harmony with our planet, and all of its inhabitants?
For much of our history — and prehistory — humans didn’t see themselves as any different from all other creatures with whom we lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals; even superiors. In many traditional cultures, animals were often worshipped as Gods.
This tradition is called animism.
Today however, a gulf exists between ourselves and other beings; and this is an aberration.
By destroying pagan animism, historian Lynn White famously argued:
"Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects, making it the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”
As a means of finding some equilibrium, maybe we need to conjure up the spirit of pagan animism — the belief that every tree, river and animal has a guardian spirit. This way, wouldn't we be more inclined to better protect our planet, and by extension, ourselves too?
It might sound strange, but remember, these ideas are not as far removed from our own times as one might think: The Romans believed legendary twins Romulus and Remus had been suckled by a she-wolf. Until 1872, a live she-wolf was displayed in a cage in the centre of the Eternal City. Even Guy Fawkes, the effigy burnt in Great Britain every year, is a tradition based on superstition.
There isn’t even a need to reinvent animism, for in a way, it's already here. It’s a product of the vibrant ecological activism that has emerged in recent decades:
Hundreds of thousands of environmental organisations around the world effectively operate as massive decentralised religion, each worshipping the same deity that has been venerated by indigenous peoples for so long: Mother Earth. While it may not be written in their different mission statements, they are all driven in their different ways by quasi-religious belief that all life is sacred.” - Roman Krznaric
Even evolutionary biologist and the world’s most famous rationalist, Richard Dawkins, believes there are grounds for fostering a spiritual connection with the living planet:
“I can see there might be an argument to treat the earth as a goddess like Gaia, as a way of galvanising people and arousing them to protect it.”
Hegel once said that humanity will not be content until it lives in a world of its own making. And he's not wrong, the problem is, in spite of our best efforts, it's never going to happen.
“Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason to despair. It doesn’t need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making.” - John Gray
The aim of life should not be to change the world, but to see it rightly.
This means accepting that an exceptionally destructive species cannot become the planet’s wise steward, and humans, in spite of our incredible success, matter no more than anything else.
Therein lies our salvation.
Part 2 - A Deeper Dive
This is a boundlessly beautiful novel by Nobel and Booker prize winner Olga Tokarczuk. It's basically a murder mystery, but told from the point of view of an eccentric old woman who believes the mysterious deaths of her neighbours are caused by vengeful, wild animals. Here’s an appropriate excerpt (which I reckon was inspired by the lovely 4th-century Taoist parable “The Useless Tree”):
Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.
Admittedly Natasha Myers’ piece is extreme. But if you accept the need for radical disruption to ensure a liveable world, you might find it paradigm shifting.
To say that forests and marine microbes form the “lungs of the earth” is an understatement. They literally breathe us into being…Our worlds will only be liveable worlds when people learn how to conspire with the plants.
Part 3 - Superstition In Action (Sort Of)
Compare the following headlines. You couldn’t make this shit up:
If you cut down a tree and turn it into a table, does it still have a spirit? Honestly, I've no IKEA.
That’s my lot for this week. Let me know what you think. Take care - Scott