George Monbiot has written a furious, bitter and very sad indictment of humanity in the Guardian today. He is right – and wrong.
I’ve had days, weeks, months, even a couple of years at one point, when I have also wondered if humans were just an evolutionary dead-end – a particularly vicious, nasty, brutal little species that infect, kills and punish everything else around it. I don’t think any sane, thoughtful person has not had this thought at some time or another. George focusses on species extinction. If he was going to take it solely from an environmental point of view, he might just as well have concentrated on climate change, air pollution, soil erosion, food waste – we are destructive in so many and such varied ways.
And it’s not just the contemptuous way we appear to treat our planet. When you feel gloomy about humans, the way we treat each other is just as hard to contemplate; the divisions between rich and poor, the disenfranchisement of whole sections of the population, violence within families or between cultural groups, exploitation, cruelty, endless endless stupidity. Even writing it down and thinking about it is depressing.
It is all true, every scrap of it. But it is not all of the truth. The older I get, to my surprise, the more affection I have for the human race. Yes we are clumsy, foolish, destructive. But perhaps the problem is that George expects too much of us all. If we stop thinking of ourselves as wise, higher beings, and begin to think of ourselves as animals who have miraculously been given these odd gifts of social communication, empathy and an extraordinary technological aptitude with which we are not quite equipped to keep pace, then it is all a bit less surprising.
The pre-Victorian mindset – which saw human beings as a higher level of being – was demolished by Charles Darwin’s conclusions which made us part of the primate family. But sometimes I think that members of the intelligentsia have still not really come to terms with this. There are extraordinary people among us who have created works of art, written music or plays or poems that are the apex of what humanity can do (they are a whole discussion by themselves). But the rest of us really are quite basic creatures – as any observer can see. We love our children – very devotedly in most cases. We try to love each other – and more marriages succeed than fail. We try, mostly, to look after each other, to do our jobs well, to put a roof over our family heads. We are not higher beings at all – we are just doing what all other sentient species do.
But – perhaps unfortunately – we have two super-powers which are strangely complementary. We can make incredible, extraordinary tools which do incredible extraordinary things. And we can adapt to these tools, and get into the habit of using them extremely quickly. These gifts, sadly, do not come with any ability to see into the future: this is the superpower humans would love most of all (we reward people who we think have it incredibly highly) but which we resoundingly lack. The results, in environmental terms, are a disaster. But I am no longer as sure as I was that this only springs from deliberate destructiveness. You only need to watch people gardening, tending their homes, looking after each other, to realise that a huge part of the human race has an instinct to cultivate and steward, not the other way round.
George is right to feel despair about humans. But he should also feel affection for this odd, stupid, clever species. T.H.White, author of the Once and Future King, wrote a passage about humanity in the Book of Merlyn which I have always loved. Arthur is sitting on a hillside, the night before his final battle against Mordred. He looks out over the countryside.
“England was at the old man’s feet, like a sleeping man-child. When it was awake it would stump about, grabbing things and breaking them, killing butterflies, pulling the cat’s tail, nourishing its ego with amoral and relentless mastery. But in sleep its masculine force was abdicated. The man-child sprawled undefended now, vulnerable, a baby trusting the world to let it sleep in peace.
All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness… He saw suddenly all the people who had accepted sacrifice: learned men who had starved for truth, poets who had refused to compound in order to acheive success, parents who had swallowed their own love in order to help their children live, doctors and holy men who had died to help, millions of crusaders, generally stupid, who had been butchered for their stupidity – but who had meant well.
That was it, to mean well! He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say. It moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving round the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because there was something that he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognise and acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do.”
Everything George has said is true. But this is true too.