Borrowed Time

Journeying together through climate grief

Borrowed Time Blog

Hierarchy must go!

Author: Duncan Forbes | Date: 23 March, 2022 | Category: Borrowed Time

The Handbook of Climate Psychology, produced by the UK’s Climate Psychology Alliance, makes it clear that Climate Change “Is not a problem to be solved.” Instead, “At the deepest level, the psychological/cultural challenge lies in the belief that, as a species, we are different and special compared to other species; that nature is a resource for us to use.”

For centuries, Western ways of thought have assumed that the world is arranged hierarchically. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the idea of the “Great Chain of Being”, developed in the Middle Ages. In this way of looking at things, God is at the top of the pyramid. Below God are the angels, pure spirits, and then below them the material creation. Humans are of course at the top of the material world – after all, doesn’t the Bible say that they were made “in the image of God”? But even human society in this system is layered in a hierarchy. The doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings” which developed in Europe maintained that the monarch was solely answerable to God, and below the monarch were various categories with the “common people” at the bottom. This hierarchical view of things is embedded very deeply. “Top of the class”, “top dog”, “bottom of the pile” – all these everyday phrases and so many more reinforce our innate assumptions that what we regard as the top in every sphere of life is so much more valuable than what’s “lower down”.

When it comes to the non-human world the assumption of the superiority of humans over everything else is clearly seen. Again, and most regrettably, this seems to have the support of the Bible. The command to “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1.28 has led to a lot of hand-wringing and perplexity among Christian environmentalists who deplore the way that it has been assumed to give humans the right to exploit, control and dominate the rest of the material creation.

We cannot ignore the fact that the Biblical documents were written in very different cultures from our own, and moreover without the scientific knowledge that we now have about the way that the world works. At the very least, to “subdue the earth” might have seemed justifiable for human societies which realised that their survival depended upon the reliability of the coming harvest and the thriving of their livestock, themselves highly vulnerable to disease, storm or drought.

It won’t do any more. We now know with our minds, though not sadly so often with our hearts, that in many ways we are not “different and special”. We are warm-blooded mammals, with remarkable gifts certainly, but as dependent on, as rooted in, the physical world and its processes as are all other animals. Our technical skill has enabled the more fortunate among us to distance ourselves from the reliability of the harvest and the health of our livestock, which has led to a fatal sense of independence from them and from all the other complex natural systems which keep us alive hour by hour. How long will it be before the deeply-rooted belief that we are “different and special” is replaced by the honest recognition that we are not sitting at the top of a pyramid under God? Rather, we are constituted by and owe our continuing existence to the networks of connections and interactions in which we are embedded, and from which we are inseparable. It’s not us and the environment: it’s us as just part of “the environment”, what we conveniently call the “whole creation”.

Christians talk about “care for creation”: too often lurking behind this phrase is the continuing assumption of superiority, of manipulation and control. Benign control, certainly, but ultimately driven by human self-interest. We will only survive as a species if we can lay aside our self-interest and dismantle our hierarchic assumptions.