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Humanity is not trapped in a deadly game with Earth – there are solutions | David Wengrow

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AAt the start of the Cop26 climate summit, scientists and activists largely agree that our dominant cultural system has put us and our planet on the path to disaster. They agree that it is time to change course. Yet at this critical moment we find ourselves paralyzed, with new horizons closed by a false prospectus of human possibilities based on mythological conceptions of history.

We only have to look at the notion that underlies our idea of ​​human development. In this story, our species was born out of egalitarian bands of hunters and foragers, becoming one with their environment, only to fall out of favor in a state of inequality. In this ‘coming of age’ fairy tale, we humans started out in innocence, then developed on a journey of technological discovery – from foragers to farmers to farmers. fossil fuels – which allowed our “advancement” but saw us relinquish our original freedoms. . We have “civilized” to find ourselves locked in a standoff with nature which now threatens the planet.

Creativity, we are told, has always been the exception in human societies, not the norm. It came, supposedly, in exceptional bursts – the agricultural, urban, industrial revolutions – each of which was followed by long sterile years in which we remained prisoners of our own creations.

We could live in societies of equals, the story goes, when we were few, our lives and our needs were simple. From this perspective, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Large means complex, which involves the hierarchy, exploitation and competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we must draw the obvious and gloomy conclusions. There is no sense in fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our economy of growth or death, what hope do we really have for progress?

But it turns out that nothing in this familiar conception of human history is really true.

To be clear, the myth itself is not the issue here. As all societies have their science, all societies have their myths. The problems start when we confuse our myths with physical or social science. In fact, the greatest mythical structures in history that we have deployed over the past few centuries simply don’t work anymore: they are impossible to reconcile with a flood of new evidence about the human past that is now before our eyes. And the categories and meanings they promote are vulgar, hackneyed, and politically disastrous.

Over the past decades, our scientific means of understanding the past, both of our species and of our planet, have advanced at breakneck speed. Scientists in 2021 may not encounter alien civilizations in distant star systems, but we do encounter radically different forms of society beneath our feet: forgotten ways of being human and living together in large numbers. Paths not taken.

We see garden cities without centers, governed in a truly democratic way; of societies which adapted to the seasons, alternating freely between modes of life and organization – egalitarian and hierarchical – as they did; we see, in the mirror of our past, empire-sized coalitions and confederations, held together by cooperation and consensus, not by force.

Humans may not have started their story in a state of innocence, but they seem to have spent most of it exercising a conscious aversion to authority. We now know that the world’s first city dwellers did not always leave a harsh imprint on the environment or on each other; we also know that there are no laws of history that force us to tie the future of the Earth system to the cut and push of our electoral politics or force us to apprehend a hospitality crisis like a migration crisis. Calling on citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of the magnitude of the climate crisis does not go against our social evolution; he asks us to reclaim the spark of political creativity that gave life to the world’s first cities, in the hope of discerning a future for the planet we all share.

It is time to change the course of human history, starting with the past. We now seem to be heading towards what the ancient Greeks called kairos, a window of opportunity, when our very capacity for change is put to the test. If we fail, it is not because of history or evolution. Others – those we call indigenous peoples, First Nations – are already far ahead of us, because, against all odds of colonial appropriation, genocide and pandemics of the past, they have followed different paths towards the future, now guardian-based land management systems. , not ownership or extraction, of the forms of democracy in which participating means controlling, not flaunting, one’s ego.

Today we have no excuse for inertia. Yes, we are haunted by the specters of our recent past, utopian dreams built on distorted images of human history, which have spawned monsters and nightmares. But changing the world, digging a hole in the fabric of social reality and starting over is what makes us sapiens. As far as our scientific evidence takes us into our own past, we find this to be true. Our ancestors were not the dull figures of evolutionary theory or philosophical speculation. Viewed in the context of our entire history, we prove to be a playful and inventive species who only recently got stuck in a deadly game of extraction and expansion – “you grow or you die” – and forgot. how to change the rules.

My late friend David Graeber wrote: “The ultimate and hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and that we might as well do differently. To even begin this process, and regardless of the obstacles, we must allow ourselves to dream again, this time starting with the freedoms that have made us human.

Not malicious freedoms, which were taught to us by former slavers (legalistic freedoms evoked by the fate of captivity and the suffering of others; freedoms that make us winners and losers, survivors and victims) . But on the contrary, freedoms underpinned by care and mutual aid, long familiar to those of the global South who have avoided the worst traps that we have set for ourselves and whose fate is now linked to ours: the freedom to be move away, to flee its environment, knowing that you will be welcomed at the point of destination; disobey arbitrary orders, knowing that you will not be ostracized, but heard and debated. Based on these, we can take the liberty of re-imagining and then remaking our societies and our relationship with our planet in a new form.

David Wengrow is Professor of Comparative Archeology at University College London. He is the co-author with David Graber of The dawn of everything

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