No longer an ecosystem with which to live in harmony

One of the themes I’ve been working on as I have gone through the coursework for my Ph.D. program is the issue of sustainability. I had, in fact, originally intended to get a certificate in Building a Sustainable World and a concentration in Social Transformation (these programs have developed and changed names and been re-shuffled since I started at Saybrook University; following the links will lead you to what I think are current incarnations) to go along with the Ph.D. in Human Science.

My argument has been that with the transformation from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, roughly 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, we as a species took a disastrous turn from living more or less in harmony with nature to an attitude of dominance, both among ourselves as a species, and with respect to animals and with nature, and I have repeatedly tackled the question of what to do about this, and how we should respond to the fact of this profoundly wrong turn.[1] This can be seen as the antithesis to my dissertation topic, which appears likely to analyze conservatism as a form of domination, and it is also where my heart lies. Even so, an xkcd comic (figure 1) is eye-opening.

Fig. 1. Land mammals on earth, by weight. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial license.
Fig. 1. Land mammals on earth, by weight. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial license.

I’m going to have to trust that Randall Munroe has done this right, that is, that he has correctly interpreted and rendered the information he presents here. This is, after all, a comic, not a scholarly article. But to the extent that he is correct, the notion of an earth ecosystem, at least on land, with which we live in harmony, rather than one which we dominate, seems to be a relic of an ancient imagination. Not shown here, are the corresponding—and one would assume even more extreme—weights in plant life,[2]comparing agriculture both for direct human consumption and for livestock consumption to wilderness and, perhaps generously, park land and various kinds of nature reserves.

Also missing here are the oceans.

All that said, Munroe’s image suggests the extent that we have remade and, really, cut ourselves off from a planetary ecosystem which brought us forth. In a sense, we have cut ourselves off from home, replacing it with a “new” home that seems increasingly inadequate.[3] The spiritual costs, too, of a wild nature annihilated, are incalculable.[4] This suggests that even as we have changed the ecosystem, we have also changed ourselves.

And it is hard to see how this has been for the better.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “We “need to know how it works”,” September 15, 2012,; David Benfell, “About borders,” September 2, 2012,; David Benfell, “Which Animals to Protect?” September 20, 2012,; David Benfell, “About racial profiling, economic globalization, and imperialism,” October 25, 2012,; David Benfell, “What is okay to kill to eat?” November 5, 2012,; David Benfell, “The dominator model of social organization,” November 7, 2012,; David Benfell, “The inevitability of speciesism,” December 7, 2012,; David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,; David Benfell, “Towards Sustainability,” April 11, 2013,; David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” September 27, 2013,; David Benfell, “Humans Without Borders: A Paradox,” October 15, 2013,; David Benfell, “A Colonized Academy and a Colonized People,” November 22, 2013,; David Benfell, “Animal liberation: Not the revolution but a part of one,” November 28, 2013,; David Benfell, “Animal Liberation: A Way Forward,” November 30, 2013,
  2. [2] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 (2003),
  3. [3]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,
  4. [4]David Abram, Becoming animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon, 2010); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).

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