Rugged individualism has served America well in some respects. It’s created many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and decades of economic growth.
But has individualism gone too far?
The collective mentality often goes into binary thinking: it’s either this or that. Thinking of our options as black or white choices reduces our ability to discern the subtlety of problems, opportunities, and issues.
Rather, most concepts are on a spectrum. The individualism/capitalist economic system is on one end of the spectrum, with collectivism/communism at the other. Binary thinking has us believing that individualism is good, and the collective as bad.
Self-sufficiency is important, for sure. But imagine the binary situation: you are alone in the world, and there was no collective effort for education, public safety, transportation, or commerce. Imagine there was no kindness, generosity, or love in the world, only transactions.
We’re not in that scenario, thankfully. But perhaps we’ve been creeping towards that to the point that we’ve forgotten that quality relationships matter. Or that a relationship is even a “thing” that can be improved with attention and effort. Our relationships, even the long-term ones, often feel disposable, the people discarded along with it.
In fact, the science of wellbeing tells us that positive relationships are central to our ability to thrive and have a good life. Money and material goods don’t satisfy for long; meaningful relationships do. Think about it: how much happiness is available to someone who feels all alone?
We’ve forgotten that relationships are a thing and/or that they matter. Human relationships have become invisible and/or irrelevant, and our relationship with Earth has receded even farther back in our collective awareness.
Now imagine where you’re all alone in the world, and you do not even have nature to provide for you. There is no edible vegetation, and most of the birds and animals are gone. The water and sky are polluted, and we’re left with a vista of landfills, surrounded by the detritus of our consumer mentality. What are our chances of a good life, or even survival, under those conditions?
We don’t have to choose between individualism and collectivism, because relationships are also on a spectrum. There are some things we should do independently from the human collective, and other things require cooperation. (Now imagine a political world where cooperation was the priority!)
But let’s be clear that there is no independence from Earth because none of us are living on Mars. We’re not even interdependent with Earth. We are dependent on Earth. She doesn’t need us like we need her.
At least not in the conventional sense.
Earth needs us like a mother needs her children. The children don’t tend to provide material needs, but children provide emotional and spiritual fulfillment in a way that is special to that relationship.
To many of us, that parent-child relationship is sacred, whether we are parent or child. We feel that Earth feels the same way.
What do we mean by “sacred”?
When something, a physical object, an event, or relationship, is highly valued and important we can say it is sacred as in “a sacred responsibility”.
Some relationships, especially parent-child, feel sacred to us. Mindy’s experience as a foster parent with her former partner Larry of medically fragile babies was a platform for valuable and important sacred practices, individually and as a couple. Each supported the others’ alone time, couples time (date night and meditation sits), and family time every single week. The practices involved sacred touchstones and connection, quieting, sustaining. Holding these times, relationships, and practices as sacred brought balance, meaning, and purpose to an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable life.
Sacred can also give us the sense of something more: an experience of awe and wonder. The awe and wonder can be related to place, such as savoring Earth’s grandest vistas, such as the Grand Canyon, or related to the proudest moments of our lives, like when we experience the birth of a child. The “common” experiences can also inspire awe and wonder, such as being completely present during a sunset or just watching a loved one light up with delight.
The examples of what is most important and valuable, and that which inspires awe and wonder, are predominantly around our relationships with our loved ones and the sacred responsibility of care for what is most important. Our children, our family, and Earth provide our greatest opportunities to experience transcendence in this manner.
The notion of our role and sacred responsibility for Earth care is more plausible when we consider Earth as a self-regulating system that sustains life and controls the environment. A discreet organism. A living being.
This concept of Gaia was first proposed by James Lovelock in the early 1970’s. Initially regarded as heretical, the Gaia hypothesis has since been generally accepted as the prevailing ecological theory by modern scientists.
Ecologists also agree that humanity is an integral and inseparable part of Gaia. Yet our mainstream human view is that humanity is the focal point of all of Earth’s flora, fauna, and minerals, and our laws evolved according to this anthropocentric view. In other words, our legal system is at odds with biological reality. Our legal system says that nature is property and is therefore outside the realm of rights (property cannot have rights).
We are the children of Earth. Earth is not our property, any more than we are the property of our children. We inhabit Earth and enjoy her bounty and (so far) she permits our destructive behavior within the family home, behavior that is not sustainable.
Our legal system has given all the rights to certain children of Earth, and no rights to the mother.
What could go wrong?
According to Cormac Cullinan in his book Wild Law, “the governance systems of most countries and of the international community actually facilitate and legitimize the exploitation and destruction of Earth by humans.” Our laws are permitting Earth’s human children to destroy Mother, our common home, air, water, and food supply.
But Cullinan also states that “the essential purpose of human governance systems should be to support people to play a mutually enhancing role within the community of life on Earth.”
Now imagine a world where governments and humanity itself honored our relationship with Earth as a valuable, important, and sacred relationship. We humbly acknowledge our dependence on Earth, and recognize our role in damaging Mother and the home we share with the rest of Earth’s children. We are grateful for Earth’s unconditional love and unremitting generosity and forgiveness, and we recognize our place as an (unnecessary) part of the ecosystem that benefits us. Our laws, habits, economy, beliefs, and lifestyle reflect this appreciation and humility.
We must shift our viewpoint from being anthropocentric to being Earth-centric, at last offering mutual care as part of our sacred relationship and responsibility. We’d expect the same from our own children, and our Mother Earth deserves no less.