Our culture is going through massive changes. The transition we face is every bit as huge as the change from pre-civilized life to civilization that began some ten thousand years ago. That transition was complete, the important political, economic, social, and cultural features of agrarian civilization all in place, by about eight thousand years ago in the earliest places it developed. Those features included technologies (farming, the wheel, metal-working, written language), political and social developments (classes of warrior nobility, commoners, and slaves; monarchy), and religious and moral developments, which are the ones of concern for the present purposes (not to say the others were unimportant, of course). So the entire transition took about two thousand years. Our own metamorphosis has been ongoing for about five hundred years. It may take just as long as the earlier one, or it may not; at this point it’s impossible to say.
We have developed new technologies as part of our transition (artificial energy, computers, new communication technologies from the printing press to the Internet). We have replaced monarchy with the democratic republic as the standard, prevailing political form. We have abolished slavery and serfdom and the old warrior nobility. These changes are huge and wrenching and they’re not finished yet — we’re not in the forms, political or economic or cultural, that we will have when the change is done, although we’re no longer in the old ones.
We have also made changes to religion and values. In the last post, I wrote about one of the most important of those changes, the rise in the status of women, the return of gender equality (arguably to an even greater degree than it existed in pre-civilized times). Another huge change is the way that we see mankind’s relationship to the biosphere of which we are a part. Environmentalism is potentially almost as big a change as feminism.
The religions that emerged during the agrarian civilized age, which includes all of the so-called “great” religions, saw man as dominant over nature. This was a huge shift from the prevailing view of pre-civilized humanity, that we were subordinate to nature like every other species of animal. That view was not compatible with an economy that depended on the enslavement of nature for prosperity: one cannot plow the soil and dictate what will grow, or domesticate (which means enslave) animals for meat, milk, hides, or labor, if one views oneself as subordinate to nature. In fact, pre-civilized peoples surviving into modern times are known to view these activities with suspicion and distaste.
The view of man as nature’s tyrant is appropriate to agrarian civilization; it frees humanity to tame the wilderness and exploit nature for human needs and desires. The moral belief that man is entitled to do this is expressed in the Bible in Genesis 9:1-3: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” Religions outside the Abrahamic faiths have similar beliefs.
But just as the technological changes opening the way to agrarian civilization made the old man-as-subordinate view of pre-civilized life inappropriate to the new circumstances, so has the technological revolution of our own times done with man-as-dominator. Our power over nature has grown so vast that we can no longer afford to see it as ours to exploit at will. We are capable of undermining the basis of life on Earth now, and in doing so we would destroy ourselves, for our original status as dependent on the biosphere has not changed. We cannot return to the pre-civilized view of our place in the world; we have far too much power for that to make any sense. We cannot continue with the view of agrarian civilization, either, or we’ll destroy ourselves. A third approach, man as caretaker of nature, must be adopted, and is being adopted. It remains to be seen whether the transition will be complete before we do in fact destroy ourselves, but the attempt is being made.
Like feminism, environmentalism has a major impact on both spirituality and fantasy storytelling (although in fact, the impact of environmentalism is greatest not in fantasy but in science fiction). We’re seeing environmentalism emerge as a major moral tenet in such unlikely religious traditions as evangelical Christianity, at the same time as new religions such as Neopaganism incorporate it from inception. That we are no longer entitled to exploit all life for our own benefit without restraint, but must pull our punches and protect the planet both from ourselves and from anything else that threatens it is where this is going. From a clever animal, to nature’s tyrant, to nature’s protector — that has been our transition over thousands of years.
As I said, in terms of storytelling we see this more in science fiction than in fantasy. David Brin is a major proponent; it’s all over his Uplift series and the entire theme of Earth. But it does emerge in the myth-making of fantasy, too. It was a part of the ethos of the Lords in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, for example. In other fantasy the myth-making is a bit more subtle. The backlash of nature against human fecklessness or wickedness is one way in which it’s presented; this can take the form of old sleeping gods being awakened or guardians of the land arising to punish human greed. The disturbing of balances that redress themselves in vengeance against those that do the disturbing is a motif with broader applications than environmentalism but it has relevance to that as well.
One thing about fantasy is that one can approach a subject indirectly through metaphor, and most of the time that’s what is done, especially in regard to environmentalism which has little direct significance to a low-tech world (where most fantasy other than contemporary fantasy is set). When we see a culture in which old ways must be set aside and new ones taken up; when we see powerful forces unleashed by human greed, power-lust and stupidity threatening to destroy a civilization if a change isn’t made; then we see mythic treatment of the theme of environmentalism.