Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cave Art, Modernity & Human Extinction

Sculpture at Bedrock Gardens
The following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 6/11/11
Back To The Future
J. Stimmell  2011
We recently saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams at Red River Theater, an astonishing documentary showcasing early human art recently discovered in the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France: cave paintings going back an unimaginable 32,000 years.
The images were amazing, as modern as today, finely wrought with such expressive detail they could find a place in any museum: horses drawn with exquisite realism, rhinos immersed in deadly combat, bison migrating in motion. Even wooly mammoths and a menagerie of cave lions.
Because this cave is a time capsule, sealed by an avalanche for over 20,000 years, it is a repository of more than remarkable art; it also preserved traces of our forebears: actual human footprints in the dirt, along with tracks of wolves and bears.
Somehow these footprints, as fresh as yesterday, affected me more profoundly than the art, providing me a visceral link with my ancestors. It was like getting a chance to walk once again through the home of my long-deceased grandmother, to admire the familiar pictures on the walls, and see her tracks still visible in the dust of the attic floor, along with those of her beloved cats.
More than just visceral, it was transformational, reconnecting me not just with my direct forebears but to the entire human race.
These cave painters were no different than us, human beings taking one small step after another down the dusty path of life, not knowing what was coming, doing the best they could, trying to make sense of it all through art and spirituality.
Except for one big difference!
 These early humans did not separate themselves from the hoofed animals on the wall, the cave lions and bears, the winged ones or the fishes of the sea; in their hearts and minds they felt a kinship with all species, each of them were, they knew, a vital, interrelated part of a vibrantly alive Mother Earth.
Tragically, we’ve lost that intimate connection to nature. Over time, especially since the industrial revolution we have increasingly attempted to master the earth, to dominate her. Rather than a sacred mother, she has become like a sex object, just another commodity to use.
Turning mother nature into a commodity has lead to the second big difference between our cave ancestors and ourselves.  Because of what we are now doing to the Earth, there is excellent chance that we will soon be extinct. This is a new existential fear that did not exist for earlier generations of humans.
Joanna Macy wrote prophetically about this in 1991:
With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours has lived with the assumption that other generations would follow. It has always been assumed, as an integral part of human experience, that the work of our hands and heads and hearts would live on through those who came after us, walking on the same earth beneath the same sky. Plagues, wars, and personal death have always taken place within that wider context, the assurance of continuity. Now we have lost the certainty that we will have a future.[i]
Research done in the last twenty years has confirmed Macy’s prophecy.  No longer is there any controversy among professionals, if there ever was. According to the 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science[ii] and a new survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change,[iii] 97-99% of all scientists agree that man-made climate change is real and accelerating.
As a direct result, species around the world are going extinct at an unprecedented rate.[iv] According to the Living Planet Index,[v] due to destructive human activity, the diversity of all life on earth has already decreased by over 30% in just the past thirty-five years.  
Can humans be far behind?
At a recent conference at the Royal Institute, Nick Bistro, an Oxford philosopher, asserted that the next hundred years is critical for humanity, putting the odds of humans surviving that long at 25%. Sir Martin Rees of the Future of Humanity Institute was more optimistic, putting the odds at 50%.[vi]
Ecopsychologists like Joanna Macy believe that “at some level of consciousness, regardless of political orientation” we are all haunted by this fear of extinction, of being summarily snuffed out like candles on the alter after the service is over.
I agree with Macy that our collective fear of extinction is a “pivotal psychological reality of our time.”  But, because it is too unsettling to think about, most of us are in denial, finding it easier to lose ourselves in the distractions and drama of everyday life.
Still, it seeps into our consciousness around the edges, affecting our actions.
We sense something very bad is happening but feel powerless to stop it. It’s like fearing that our bank is about to go insolvent: Our first instinct is to make a run on the bank, knocking over whoever is in our way, to get our share before it is all gone.
Trouble is, this isn’t a bank we are making a run on, it’s our mother: She’s lying bleeding on the street, victim of countless assaults by a frenzied mob fighting among themselves to steal the last few coins from her tattered purse.
If we are going to have a chance to survive as a species, we must go back to the future and reconnect to the wisdom of our cave dwelling ancestors: The earth is not a bank to hold our valuables but our living, breathing mother.
If we can make this paradigm shift, the rest will come naturally. We will once again give our mother the respect she deserves, embracing her tenderly, binding up her wounds, doing everything in our power to nurse her back to health.

Who knows, if we act quickly enough, it might not be too late.

[i] World as Lover, World as Self
by Joanna Macy: Parallax Press. 1991. Page 5
[iii] month=06&year=2011&base_name=climate_confusion
[vi] What will happen to us by Graeme Wood

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