It’s a Termite’s World – An allegory about the most dangerous illusion
Why Human Supremacism is dead wrong about Life --- [Estimated reading time: 15 min.]
“We need to change…”
Those four little words are really, really common right now. They are constant companions in virtually all contemporary public discourse, whether in talk shows, op-eds, on social media, or in my own essays, and they are usually followed by a specification of what exactly it is we need to change. The way we eat, farm, produce, consume, transport, travel, build, talk, and think – in short: basically everything, from the ground up. It stems from a growing realization that the dominant culture is not, cannot, and will never be sustainable.
There are, as my phrasing implies, different stages to this realization, starting with the most common one: the dominant culture is not sustainable. Right now, this is not even a controversial opinion anymore. The vast majority of people would agree, because the evidence is overwhelming. The living planet is dying, as a direct result of our actions.
The next step is realizing that this culture, in this version, simply cannot be sustainable, because of a number of inbuilt defects, a few lines of dysfunctional code in the basic operating system that our view of reality runs on, that effectively keep it from becoming anything even remotely resembling sustainability – what we need is a major update to fix things. This is the territory inhabited by anti-capitalists, socialists, anarchists, mainstream permaculturalists, bright green environmentalists, radicals and dissidents of all kinds.
The final step is to realize that, whatever we try, this culture at large will never be sustainable, because its most basic norms and values stand in direct conflict with the way the world works. This is the realm of anarcho-primitivists, deep ecologists, neo-animists, radical permaculturalists, dark green environmentalists, hermits and dropouts.
That’s where I’m at.
And that’s where I’ll try to get you, dear reader, as well in due time – assuming you’re not already there (in which case I hope this little story is at least entertaining). Only if we reach this point do we have a chance to truly make a change, because, as Einstein so aptly put it, “we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
What’s clear is that change needs to happen. Massive change. Real change. Not “Change à la Obama” – basically replacing neoliberalism with a slightly less appalling version of neoliberalism, and one form of unprovoked asymmetric warfare with an even unfairer one – and not “Change à la Naomi Klein” – supplanting of one set of technologies for another, one kind of industry with the next better one, and one form of extraction and exploitation with a slightly different one. Daniel Quinn once compared the required changes necessary for humanity to survive the next few centuries to the difference between the Middle Age and the Renaissance, and how the Renaissance was completely unimaginable to the people living in the Middle Age – in fact, had to be unimaginable, otherwise the Middle Age would have already been the Renaissance.
Just like people in the Middle Age were convinced that people would forever go on thinking and living the medieval way, the citizens of contemporary techno-industrial civilization are absolutely unshaken in their faith that people will go on thinking and living pretty much like they currently do – just bigger, and better.
The responses I get when I carefully suggest that a convincing argument can be made that the future might be characterized by diverse, decentralized, low-tech, small-scale societies of semi-nomadic foragers and horticulturalists is an indicator that I might be on to something here. The utter disbelief people express, the near-instant ridicule and dismissal, the sheer viciousness which with people oppose this heretical thought, this “nonsense” that flies in the face of everything the dominant culture has ever taught them, is evidence that this might be it.
If people could conceive us living a lifestyle that doesn’t destroy the landbase we inhabit – but is still relatively pleasant, worry-free and overall worth living (at least not less so than life in contemporary society) – they would surely already live this way. And, of course, there already are people living this way, this year more than last year, and last year more than the year before that. The reaction by the oversocialized ideological foot soldiers of civilization, the indoctrinated masses that naively believe this culture’s lies, speaks volumes. Dreamers, they call us, utopians, starry-eyed idealists and dirty hippies that should “wake up,” “be realistic” and “get a job” in the “real world.”
They are convinced that this is the best life any human ever had: living like sardines in a tin in lifeless, grey ecological moonscapes of asphalt and cement, like cattle in a factory farm, drowning in their own filth and refuse, carcinogenic chemicals in the rainwater and heavy metals and other toxins saturating the soil.
It might not be perfect, they admit, but it’s vastly preferable to any previous period of history. And it will get better! Scores of scientists are working around the clock to solve the problems that plague this society, the ills that befall its inhabitants and the horrors it unleashes onto the Natural World. Yet the “change” they propose looks suspiciously like merely more of the same.
So, what is it we need to change the most urgently?
Answers to this question vary considerably. Some think, in all seriousness, that it’s enough to replace the fossil fuel infrastructure with so-called “renewables” and then go on with business as usual, meaning the brutal conversion of biomass and living landscapes into more humans, consumer goods, and strips of colored paper.
To me, the answer is as different as can be. We need to change almost everything, but what needs to change first are the fundamental assumptions this culture makes about itself and its place in the Universe. Those most basic presuppositions and beliefs usually go unquestioned, and this is the real danger. If something so basic goes unquestioned and thus unexamined, all consequent thoughts and actions will be tainted by this original faulty reasoning, and hence contain the seed of destruction that, if allowed to flourish for long enough, depletes its entire environment and smothers it under a thick mantle of fine particle pollution.
If we don’t change those most basic assumptions, nothing will ever change for the better. Capitalism plunders the Living Planet for the benefit of a tiny elite; socialism exploits it for the benefit of the proletariat. The exploitation goes unquestioned, the only difference is who gets to enjoy its fruits.
And why should we question it? Isn’t that what humans do, what we have always been doing? Isn’t that what we have to do? We gotta eat, right?!
To be fair, I do think that a society without elites is a huge step in the right direction, but I don’t think it suffices. At best, it will buy this civilization a few decades time until the inevitable cataclysm catches up with it. The changes will have to go deeper than that to have a long-lasting positive effect for both us humans and the landscape we inhabit. Our very perception of what “Life” itself actually means needs to undergo some critical scrutiny. We need to reconsider the Meaning of Life, our role in the Grand Scheme of Things, who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. The dominant culture answers all those questions, but it gets almost everything wrong.
The spectrum of our possible actions is limited by our imagination. Whatever we can’t imagine obviously can’t influence our behaviors. Since the dominant culture’s answers to the existential questions above omit crucial information, it severely limits our responses and reactions to what it allows us to think is possible.
As a result, we are under the illusion that we experience all there is to “life”, and when we say common phrases like “that’s life,” we think that we have a grasp of what Life actually is. It is human lives, lived in a human-made world. Interactions with other humans – happiness, sadness, joy, grief, anger, frustration, satisfaction, worry, relief – the Great Cosmic Drama, the tragic fate of a species too clever for its own good.
As members of the dominant culture, we are constantly reminded that only humans matter, and only humans give the world any deeper meaning. “Nature” is great, as a backdrop for the ongoing human saga, a place we can escape to temporarily when city life gets too stressful (called a ‘holiday’, derived from an Old English word meaning ‘holy day’), but the “real world” is the human world. After spending a ‘holy day’ (or a holy weekend) camping in the forests or mountains (places considered sacred and alive in ancient times), we are glad to finally take a hot shower in our apartment, and enjoy the last evening before we have to go back to work, watching meaningless entertainment and eating poisonous food. If that’s “the real world,” may the gods help us.
Most of the songs and movies this culture produces are about humans (somewhere north of 99 percent, I’d guess), and if Nature plays a role, it’s often displayed as a place full of danger. Good that there is so little untamed Nature left, am I right? We’ve transformed the world, for the better! No more dangerous predators, no more places you can’t drive to in the comforting safety of your car. Progress!
What I try to explain here goes deeper than our everyday thinking, and I’ll attempt to expose one of the most common and most overlooked lies that the dominant culture is perpetuating. As soon as you’re not under the spell of human supremacism anymore, it becomes almost unfathomable how the vast majority of people in this culture perceive the world like this without suspecting that something is off. It just seems so obvious in hindsight, yet it’s surprisingly hard to pin down what’s really wrong here and put it into words. Since we’re not talking about things that are commonly articulated, the great difficulty is describing the feelings that underlie this erroneous view of humans and our place in this world.
Daniel Quinn has pointed out that this culture’s main premise can be summarized as follows:
“The world was made for Man, and Man was made to conquer and rule it.”
This is what the people of this culture have believed for thousands of years, and they have adjusted their actions accordingly, lived as if this premise is the truth.
Notwithstanding the potentially disastrous implications of this statement, the inescapable biological reality is: the world was not made for us, any more than it was made for horseflies, elephants or termites. We inhabit it, yes, and we are convinced that we are its lords and masters with an obviousness that is baffling, but if you’d go and ask the world herself whom she belongs to, her answer will most definitely not be “to the humans.”
Depending on your perspective, the world belongs to no one – or to all of us.
Life is so much more than this, so much more than just humans. Deep down we all know this; we just choose to ignore it. We encounter nonhumans, aka “the rest of Life,” on a daily basis, no matter where we are. No matter how much we try to banish them from the human world, they always sneak back in somehow. Ants under the doormat. Grass in the cracks of a concrete parking lot. Birds chirping busily on the top of a roof. Life is always there, but at the same time never really visible to us. This is because what we have come to call “Life” is an impoverished version, a tiny fraction of the whole picture. The reductionist approach.
Life is what humans do, is what our culture taught us ever since we got old enough to listen. As young children, we see all living beings (and even objects) through an animist perspective, endowed with an interior life just like ours, feelings, thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. Then the dominant culture, often in the form of formal education (but just as often much earlier than that), puts an end to this ‘childish nonsense’ and assures us that humans are the only self-aware, conscious, intelligent, thinking and feeling species. The pinnacle of evolution, the top of the food chain. The apex of creation, the masters of the world. Our world. And because this is how “the whole world” (an expression that almost always means “most humans alive today”) seems to experience “Life” as well, we start believing it. If you repeat a lie often enough, it starts to look like the truth. Virtually everybody in this culture has been repeating this lie, with slight variations, for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Countless generations grew up believing this lie, and lived their lives according to it. As a direct consequence, after a while the whole world (in this case meaning the actual, physical world) increasingly appeared to actually resemble this lie. Countless generations, believing that the world was made for humans, have been building a world that looks exactly like it was made for humans, and thus the world itself slowly took this shape – for the superficial observer at least – seemingly confirming to subsequent generations that this lie is not a lie at all, but in fact the Truth: this is just the way things are. But behind the scenes, and on scales too small or too large to be noticed immediately, the world resisted.
Building the human world has by no means been a walk in the park. The world fought back, and the frightening shift in climate patterns we are experiencing right now is just her latest attempt to throw back the intruders, to topple the usurpers, the disturbers of peace and balance – the people of the dominant culture, whom Daniel Quinn so aptly named ‘the Takers’.
All this time, we’ve been under the illusion that we are exceptional, special, endowed with cognitive superpowers that allow, no, that compel us to rule over the world.
The problem is, the real world, the superorganism sometimes called ‘Gaia’, couldn’t care less about humans and what we think of ourselves, and to her humans are no more exceptional than, let’s say, termites.
Think about it: if there would be a massive increase in the global termite population (maybe due to a prolonged period of extraordinary climatic conditions that favor the growth of certain trees, which just happen to be the main termite staple), and termites would figure out ways to survive in colder climates (maybe by deepening and insulating their mounts, and by storing food), the face of the world would change accordingly. Through a number of positive feedback loops, more and more of the world would look like it was made for termites, and the termites in turn would look at the world, and say: “The world is checkered with our plantations, and in the center of each small clearing there is another termite hill. Our kingdom extends from horizon to horizon, and no matter where you travel, you’ll find that we’ve already been there. Judging by how powerful we are, it certainly seems like we are the only species that matters. So, let’s subjugate the remaining pockets that are still ‘uninhabited’ [meaning, as with human supremacist terminology, ‘uninhabited by termites’], and make sure we fulfill our destiny. After all, look how far we’ve come, how much the world has changed – for the better! – because of our actions. Doesn’t it seem obvious that we are destined to rule the entire world?”
The termites would look for ways to eliminate all predators that prey on termites or compete for their food, change entire biotopes to softwood forests by killing off saplings of “undesirable” tree species and carrying around seeds of “target species” (which in turn would lead to an even faster increase in termite population, because, as population biology shows beyond doubt, increased food availability always leads to an increase in population
But, as we can imagine, the plan wouldn’t go along as smoothly as the termites would have it. Rapid changes to entire biomes have, by definition, unintended side effects and consequences that nobody can foresee. The reduction in diversity of both plants and animals that follows the extinction of hundreds of species of hardwood trees (and the animals, plants and fungi that depend on them for food or shelter) leads to a drastic reduction in the overall resilience of the termites’ softwood plantations. Storm damage is now extensive, threatening the continuous food supply and resulting in widespread famines. Drought is increasingly common, as the softwood trees’ root systems don’t reach down deep enough during the summer months, and devastating forest fires kill off swathes of termite colonies each year. Yet the termites are unshaken in their faith. After all, the whole world looks like it belongs to the termites – which must mean it actually belongs to the termites! – and thus the termites can do whatever they please with it, so how could any of this be wrong? Termites gotta eat, right? They’ve come so far, and now – what – you want them to turn back, let their vast plantations go to waste, and betray innumerable generations of hard-working termites? They couldn’t have all been wrong! No, the answer must lie somewhere else. If the world doesn’t seem to accept that termites are its masters, the response must be to increase control! Maybe build a network of massive earthen walls to keep firestorms from spreading?
I’m sure you get my point by now. The world was never made for termites, just like it was never made for humans. It certainly looked like it at some point, from some perspective, but looks can be deceiving. Once the smokescreen clears and the illusion is exposed, our best chance is to abandon the belief system that caused this mess, and figure out how the world actually functions.
The first task for us has to be to dismantle this illusion. To grasp its obscenity. To realize the implications it has for who we think we are and what we do, and the consequences it has for all other creatures that we share this planet with.
Anthropocentrism limits our understanding of “the world” and “Life” so severely that our actions from within the dominant culture can never be enough to stop the downright murder of the planet, the only planet we know that supports Life. If we want to change anything, we have to start with the fundamental belief that humans are exceptional and superior – we have to challenge anthropocentrism, in all the shapes it takes. In the Grand Scheme of Things, in the long term, we are no more exceptional than termites.
To be fair, termites fulfill important functions in the ecosystems they inhabit, and, just as humans living a natural lifestyle outside civilization’s sphere of influence, they are a valuable part of the biotic community.
If we think the world belongs to us, we will act like she does. If we think that we can do whatever we want with her, we will attempt just that. As previously stated, cultural beliefs make certain actions possible, while prohibiting others. This is why degrowth, a low-tech lifestyle, alternative subsistence modes, semi-nomadism and a return to a more natural way of life are (not even for a second!) considered as viable options by the dominant culture that, as a response, simply snaps that “We can’t go back!”
This is what people will orient themselves after if their imagination is limited by unquestioned cultural beliefs. The Myth of Progress teaches us that forward is the only way to go, so forwards we march, whatever the cost.
The Takers – the people of the dominant culture – live like they have neither ancestors nor descendants. They carelessly discard the wisdom amassed by thousands of past generations, while simultaneously compromising the wellbeing of countless generations to come, rendering the entire world uninhabitable in the name of some quasi-mythical concept of “Progress”, a creed that allows no other gods before it.
It’s not difficult to guess at what will happen to the termites in our story. Sooner or later, the catastrophes will follow each other in such rapid succession that there is no time to recover and no time to rest. Life itself will become one giant, never-ending catastrophe for the termites, until one fateful day all the crises converge to reach the breaking point, and termite society finally caves in under its own weight and implodes. After a tumultuous period of utter chaos, the global ecosystem will stabilize again – albeit with a termite population that’s a lot lower than their peak.
For the better part of two decades now, but especially during the last few years, it has felt as if catastrophe follows catastrophe, in a near seamless transition from one crisis to the next, increasing in intensity and scale. We are close to the Tipping Point; not the plural, as in ‘climate tipping points’, but the “mother of all tipping points” – the point at which enough other tipping points have reached to flip the whole system into an entirely new state.
Imagine a load of sand on the bed of a dump truck that’s slowly being lifted: at first, nothing happens. Soon a small, unsteady trickle of sand will slip off the back, then a bit more will slide down in erratic bursts, until a certain angle is reached, and suddenly – whoosh! – the whole load comes crashing down. That’s how ecosystems change under intense pressure, according to systems theory.
What exactly that new state of balance will be is difficult to tell, but we have some pretty good estimates as to how it will look. The climate will continue to derail and likely adapt a kind of whipsaw pattern, violently swaying back and forth between drought and flood: similar to the Pleistocene, but without Ice Ages. There will be a lot less forests, a lot less wildlife, and a lot less abundance. Coastlines will be submerged, and vast areas of both land and ocean will be toxic wastelands. Rivers will turn into raging rapids, then shrink to a trickle, then swell again. Not an ideal habitat for either termites or humans.
It will be a world in which the Old Paradigm, the falsehoods and delusions that the dominant culture – despite the growing chorus of dissidence – continues to preach, will become thoroughly useless. Its way of thinking will no longer be relevant, its methods and techniques no longer applicable, and its morals and values no longer be valid.
If we, like the termites in this story, fanatically cling to our perceived right to do what we want, and dismiss any limits the earth tries to impose on us, we will meet the same fate: utter annihilation.
Because this is a cautionary tale, it comes with a moral. The lesson we can learn from it is that none of this would have ever happened if the termites would have known their place, if they would never have started their megalomaniac enterprise of converting the entire world into more termites and softwood trees. “What kind of lesson is this,” you might object, “aren’t we supposed to deduce something from it, so that we can avoid the termite’s fate?” Unfortunately, no. It’s too late for that. But there is one more thing we can conclude.
The real lesson is this: if the dominant culture is wrong about Life, about the world, how it works and whom it belongs to, then the dominant culture is also wrong about how we should respond to this dilemma. It tells us to build larger cities, more machines, stronger walls, wind and solar parks, electric vehicles, new railroad tracks, higher skyscrapers, elevated highways, vertical farms, spaceships, algorithms,networks, antennas, satellites, server farms, microchips, smart homes, the “internet of things,” and a whole new virtual “reality”. None of this is going to save us. Quite the contrary, it will only exacerbate our already precarious situation. The Old Paradigm is long past its expiration date, no matter what its adherents try to tell you. It’s decaying from inside, riddled with diseases and parasites, bloated with tumorous growths that slowly suck it dry.
What will save us is what the dominant culture can’t imagine, or, better, what it’s afraid to imagine (or, at the very least, afraid to admit):
It was wrong all along. We were wrong all along.
If we want a chance to survive the coming decades and centuries, we have to do the exact opposite of what this culture teaches. We will have to live as if we are the servants, not the masters, of the biosphere. We will have to suffer for its sake, not make it suffer for ours. We will have to realize that the world was not made for us, and we were never destined to rule it. We are but one tiny part of this gigantic organism, no more important than termites, or badgers, or hornbills.
We have to ask ourselves, not what the world can do for us, but what we can do for the world.
We have to overcome the stranglehold of the dominant culture, look beyond the limitations of civilization. Anything less than that won’t be enough. Only then do we have a chance to prevail, and only then are we free to start shaping whatever Age comes next.
I write stuff like the above in my free time, when I’m not tending the piece of land we’re rewilding here at Feun Foo. As a subsistence farmer by profession I don’t have a regular income, so if you have a few bucks to spare please consider supporting my work with a small donation:
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Maybe there’s a lesson for us humans here somewhere?
This is one of the most common responses I get when suggesting anything of that kind to regular folks. It’s 100 percent cultural programming, an automatic, pre-programmed knee-jerk reaction to the outrageous blasphemy of questioning the fundamental logic underlying the Myth of Progress. Obviously, “we can’t go back,” for lack of a functioning time machine! But now that we have agreed on the physical impossibility of time travel, could I get an argument with at least a faint whiff of originality, not just some tape recorder rewinding the same old platitudes?
Sometimes erroneously called “Artificial Intelligence [sic],” those computer programs are still just a bunch of algorithms.
I loved this piece so much, it was rattling around in my brain ever since I read it. I appreciate particularly your articulation of the layers of radicalism -- and how many leftists are stuck in the middle layer. I was keenly aware of this the other day when at a reading for a leftist book launch -- the book was Cory Doctorow's Chokepoint Capitalism, and its main argument is that media monopolies (Universal Music Group, Spotify, Amazon Audiobooks/Audible etc.) are taking over and creators are being paid less than ever. It was an event oriented against domination, but at the same time I couldn't help but think, there is the domination of humans over one another, but what of the domination of the natural world? I admire intellectuals like Doctorow usually, but this time I kept staring at the stack of shiny hardcover books, and the new books all around me in the bookstore, and thinking: how many of these books would have been better left alone as living trees?
If I ever write a book I'll be very careful to think about what it's printed on, and why...
Anywho just wanted to drop in because I recently wrote an essay vaguely inspired by yours. It's about the loneliness of living without an ecological community -- something I call bioloneliness. If you have the time and/or interest to read it, it's here https://sundogg.substack.com/p/bioloneliness .
Thank you again and looking forward to your next letter!