Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Lighter Side of Human Sacrifice

I was thinking the other day about the old rites of sacrifice and propitiation that were associated with preindustrial mining and logging. It occurred to me that they often served to limit the environmental damage that such activities caused; the supernatural "demand" for human life or wealth, as payment for access to natural resources, made deficit spending a very uncomfortable prospect. That idea of a relationship with nature that requires sacrifice and accommodation on both sides is pretty much gone today, and I don't think that's a good thing.

While I don't believe we should go back to burning people alive in wicker cages or burying them under foundation stones, I do like the notion of treating our use of resources as a formal transaction between ourselves and nature, in which both sides must benefit, or at least break even. If nothing else, the logic behind sacrifice and offerings placed human obligations to the environment above the human right to exploit it, which is precisely where they should be.

Currently, we treat the natural world as something between a free all-you-can-eat buffet, and a conquered enemy who can be violated at will. Since there's no scientific evidence to support such an outlook, nor any logical or moral justification for it, it's hard not to think of it as a form of insanity. In fact, it's insane enough to make almost any earlier concept of our place in nature seem perfectly lucid.

For instance, a personified, sentient Nature that feels and punishes human abuse might be an irrational concept in materialist terms, but it's really a pretty accurate metaphor for what actually happens in a complex world. I mean that this concept is far more likely to promote a respectful understanding of complex causal relations than is the current irrational belief that actions and reactions in nature happen neatly and intelligibly, one at a time, like a slow-motion game of Whack-a-Mole.

We have a very funny notion of what's rational, these days. I honestly wonder where we find the heart to sneer at even the most fanciful beliefs of our ancestors. Given how little attention our "experts" have devoted to the likely consequences of human actions - let alone the possible ones - and how surprised they are when one of their pet schemes brings ruinous consequences, we might as well blame a Vengeful Deity for any disaster in which the chain of causality is longer than the two or three links we'll ordinarily deign to look at. After all, once you've cast aside basic notions of cause and effect, there's very little of rational thought left to be salvaged.

If laws of physics and chemistry and common sense no longer impress us - and can be shrugged off as "junk science" - then we may as well start believing that skyrocketing childhood asthma is an angry god's revenge for our failure to perform the necessary propitiatory rites at coal-burning power plants. As crazy as that is, it's still better than refusing to believe in the asthma, which is what the Bush administration would prefer us to do.

A false conception that led us towards self-preservation would surely be justifiable in utilitarian terms, making it a lesser evil (and, in that sense, a lesser lie) than a distressing amount of our current scientific and economic philosophy. If we really must base our economic and environmental policies on irrational beliefs and imaginary forces, we ought at least to choose ones that limit the harm we can do to the world and ourselves. The way things are going lately, we'll soon forfeit our right to be appalled by societies that practiced human sacrifice, and to call any age "dark" but our own.

This is especially true when you consider that we still conduct human sacrifices. We've simply placed them at the far end of our transactions with nature, where they're less apt to stand in the way of whatever delusion looks like progress this week. Instead of the "pay as you go" philosophy of preindustrial times, we've decided to run a sacrificial trade deficit, and let Nature collect her burnt offerings at her leisure, along with whatever interest has compounded.

People used to think it was worthwhile to sacrifice one person to protect a city. Now, we think it's worthwhile to sacrifice a city to protect first-quarter profits. Both viewpoints may be utterly irrational, but only one of them is evil.

1 comment:

Oscar said...

Great essay. Thanks.