DERISIVELY KNOWN as “Bushmen,” the San people of South Africa suffered the fate of many other hunter-gatherer communities. First threatened by African farmers with a more settled way of life, San society was dealt its mortal blow by the entry of Europeans. Following their arrival in Cape Town in 1652, the Dutch treated the indigenous people of South Africa as vermin—massacring the San in the thousands and cowing them into submission. Little evidence was left of their culture, though the cave art that adorns rocks across Southern Africa gives us a momentary glance into their worldview.
The San were fascinated by nature; their paintings were replete with animals, from deer to elephants.* And the drawings betray a keen understanding of these mammals, images of the latter reflecting the nuances of elephant society. However, the San’s relationship with the non-human went far deeper. In the paintings, humans were often intricately woven into the tapestry of the animal world; the art prominently featured “therianthropes,” figures that combined human and animal physiology—elephant-headed men, for instance. The San considered themselves all but part of nature. In anthropology, this is known as an animist society: a culture grounded in a profound sense of continuity between humanity and nature.
The San’s animist worldview was an outgrowth of their day-to-day existence. They were profoundly dependent on local resources for survival, their lives shaped by the patterns of nature. At the best of times, they subsisted off plants and nuts, but in the warmer seasons, most vegetation died off and the San were forced to hunt—an arduous activity that often stretched across multiple days. This way of life rested on an intelligent grasp of their environment—of plant life, the elements, and the creatures they hunted. The San’s animism flowed from a life intertwined with their environment.
Those in Europe, however, came to look upon animists like the San with a racist disdain. E. B. Taylor, the British founder of cultural anthropology, published Primitive Culture in 1871, the first attempt to understand these societies. Taylor’s work was imbued with the racism so characteristic of his age; under the influence of nineteenth-century evolutionism, he quickly read cognitive underdevelopment into any culture that didn’t consider the human to superintend over the natural.
Taylor’s arrogance spoke to a European world in the throes of a radical transformation. Prior to the mid-1800s human civilization was largely agrarian, peasant life following the rhythms of the harvest. Agrarian society may not have been dominated by the environment to the San’s extent, but it was still under the thrall of the elements. Nature could indeed have cataclysmic effects on politics; the continent-wide revolutions of 1848 had their origins in an economic crisis caused by a poor harvest. But this was to be the last recession of harvests and seasons.
Industrialization would change everything, the greatest shift in human civilization since the invention of agriculture. The rural increasingly gave way to the urban, the agricultural to the industrial. The shackles were taken off production, which had hitherto been dictated by those fickle seasons, and humanity seemed to be heading toward industrial and material plenty. Man had been emancipated from nature.
The West had long believed that humankind existed above and superior to nature—an idea dating back as far as Descartes, even to Christianity itself. If this firm boundary was once a matter of intellectual speculation, the industrial revolution now made it an empirical reality.
Industrialization also prompted the belief that Western culture, imbued with Descartes’ view of nature, was the only way to go. Industrial growth was the fountainhead of the West’s extraordinary dominance through the nineteenth century, the era in which Britain’s empire alone came to cover a quarter of the world’s land surface (the largest empire of all time). With hegemony came arrogance. Britain and France sought to spread their superior mode of society to the far corners of the earth—the infamous “civilizing mission.”
This was a vision supported by that same anthropologist, E. B. Taylor. He was a fervent believer in the supremacy of Western culture, famously arguing that societies have three stages: savagery, barbarism, then (Western) civilization. Taylor’s racist denigration of the San’s animism was thus an expression of the civilizational arrogance of the West at its apogee—the belief that anyone who diverged from the West was, in essence, primitive and barbaric. With their deep connection to the natural world, the San became only a footnote to the upward trajectory of European civilization.
The West’s mindset has proven disastrous. The Euro-American belief in the supremacy of Western society has wreaked havoc in the developing world, leaving a trail of tumult from the colonial encounter to the Iraq War. The Western approach to nature, meanwhile, appears similarly dangerous. It is, after all, difficult not to see the Western belief in the supremacy of humankind as deeply complicit in our current era of environmental degradation.
Indeed, it would appear high time to abandon the dual arrogance of E. B. Taylor, the supremacy of West over non-West and of man over animal. Mary Tucker—the founder of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology—has been particularly vocal on this issue. For her, replacing “our Western vision of reality focusing almost exclusively on the primacy of humans” with a more San-like mindset towards nature “will be essential for creating sustainable societies.”
This shift in worldview, however, will not be our species’ doing. Just as it took the extraordinary changes wrought by the industrial revolution to forge that Western vision, only the profoundly worrying effects of climate change will forge a new sensibility.
The climate crisis will undo industrialization’s emancipation of humankind from nature—which will henceforth once again intrude into human society. We will someday come to see the recent Australian bushfires as the moment when the scale of this undoing first revealed itself. But those fires pale in comparison to what may follow: sea-level rise will imperil low-lying nations worldwide from Indonesia to the Netherlands; American crop harvests will drop by up to 50%; and extreme weather events such as hurricanes will become far more frequent, leaving us increasingly at the whims of the elements. And just as in the world of 1848, nature will once again have a singular impact on politics and economics. Global temperature rises may cause drops in GDP of up to one hundred percent in the Southern Hemisphere over the course of the twenty-first century. Before we find a solution to the climate crisis, by reshaping man’s material relationship to nature, it will force us to radically reorient our very identities.
In perhaps the greatest shift in human civilization since industrialization, the climate crisis will bring home the full extent of the linkages between humankind and nature, making all but impossible the continued belief in the primacy of our species. That is, of course, barring the kind of extraordinary denialism that the current Australian government is exhibiting. Australia aside though, we may be forced to realize that only the intoxicating and beguiling effects of industry and empire separate us from the animism of the San.
*Communities of San hunter-gatherers still live in areas of several southern African countries, including Botswana, Namibia, and Angola.
Ravi Veriah Jacques
Image of car in the Kalahari courtesy of pxfuel.