Brian Swimme on what happens when human societies confront situations for which we do not have a deep narrative:
The point is that we haven’t been prepared to understand what an extinction event is. We’ve had all these great teachers. We’ve had tremendously intelligent people, going back through time, but you can look, for example, through all the sutras or Plato’s dialogues, and they never talk about an extinction. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that Plato or the Buddha were even capable of imagining an extinction. First of all, at that time we weren’t aware of evolution. We weren’t aware of the whole process, so the idea of extinction didn’t make sense. When every now and then scientists or other humans would find these bones, they would assume that these creatures were actually still in existence elsewhere, you know, on another part of the continent. So there wasn’t the conception of extinction. We’re only now having to deal with what it means to actually eliminate a form of life.
Time for some new stories eh? Swimme and others have some.
What about the Biblical flood?
One point is that the story of the flood hasn’t helped us think very well about the [potential for mass extinctions. It’s clear that for a long time, the steadfast hold outs against global warming have been deeply connected to the Christian right in the United States. So that doesn’t seem to be a narrative that is helpful, because it hasn’t stopped anything, and hasn’t given us pause.
Second, the biblical flood story (with the many other flood stories from around the world) is not an extinction story. Noah saves the animals of the earth and carries them forward into the new world. It is a story of stewardship, if anything. I think what Swimme is saying is that we have never lived through a mass extinction as humans (I’m not a Bible literalist), so we have never witnessed the death of mass numbers of species around us and therefore we have no deep stories about it from our own experience. And that is why it is uncharted territory for human narrative and knowledge.
And now here we are, in the midst of a mass extinction event that we have probably caused ourselves. How do we reconcile ourselves to every other species on the earth?
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