Here’s something: I am in an airplane. I am flying over the ocean, somewhere between Europe and Canada. I am drinking instant coffee and half-watching the latest episode of 24 on the iPad screen of a person sitting next to me. This whole thing would have been almost unimaginable only like two hundred years ago, but here I am.
(This is a stupid and uninteresting way to start an essay but I promise it gets a little more complicated.)
Humans have two very unique and powerful qualities. We innovate and then we adjust to our innovations. The two things drive each other. We dream about flight until we can fly and then flight is normal. We want flight that is faster. We want flight that is more comfortable. We innovate and adjust, and we call it progress.
(Just hang in there.)
Here’s something else: In the Bible, Adam and Eve decide they need to start wearing clothes only after eating from the tree of knowledge. Even though Adam was given “dominion” over the other animals upon his creation, he doesn’t feel significantly different enough from them until after after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. So what exactly was the nature of this knowledge? And why is it used as the explanation for why people are afraid of being naked?
These questions have some kind of weird implications for the whole of Christian mythology. The story takes for granted the fact that people are different than the rest of the animals. I guess you could argue that the “dominion” which Adam holds over them in Eden consists largely of thinking up names for them. He mostly just lives with them harmoniously in a giant walled garden. Then the “original sin” of all of humanity, according to Christian mythology, results in a knowledge which drives a wedge between humans and other animals. Adam and Eve are embarrassed and afraid of being seen naked. They are afraid to be seen as animals.
Whatever your views are on the legitimacy of Christianity and the Bible, you sort of have to concede that the thing is designed to address and explain the root of a lot of very basic and often unspoken human anxieties. That’s why the whole deal has been so sustainably popular. There is a deeper truth to the myth of the garden that can kind of sneak up on you.
So here I am in an airplane. I am flying back to Winnipeg, where I live and work at a job I don’t totally like but keep because I like to be able to afford to do things like eat healthy food and fly in an airplane to Europe. I feel like this is the common experience for a lot of people. We do jobs that we don’t totally like because they allow us to do things that we do like.
(And I’m going to acknowledge my privileged position here: an even more common experience for a lot of people is working at a job they don’t totally like because it allows them to do really essential stuff like pay rent and support their families. This is, at least in part, the result of a system that is unfair and corrupt and most of the rest of this essay is a vague suggestion at a possible solution.)
We participate in and contribute to a system that we know is corrupt and unfair because the rewards that the system offers for participating in the system are too tempting to pass on. That is kind of the driving force of the whole system, and it perfectly showcases those two unique and powerful qualities of humanity I alluded to above. We create new and beautiful things and we will pay in labour hours for the newest and most beautiful things. This is not inherently bad in and of itself, but it is a system that is incredibly easy to corrupt. So much so that the desire for the newest and most beautiful things is often more important than the function or necessity of the things themselves. We just consume. And this is another distinctly human characteristic. No other animal can consume like humans do. But this characteristic is learned. It is a product of the system which drives desire for new and beautiful. Innovation becomes excess and newness and beauty start to become ends in themselves, and the time we spend doing jobs that we don’t totally like begins to offer only hollow rewards. But this model of consumption can be unlearned, or at least better understood. Look at the other animals. What do they have and what do they need. Think about a a model of consumerism based on the consuming habits of an ostrich. Think about only buying exactly the amount you need, taking the power away from those that want to exploit both you as a consumer and you as their own employee to provide you with things you don’t need.
(And I guess I should point out that I’m not arguing we should all strip down and live in the forests with the rest of the animals, but I think sometimes it is valuable to sit down and earnestly ask yourself why that kind of lifestyle feels both insane and also kind of exciting.)
Here is the point. There are no walls to the garden and we were never cast out of it. We are still there. If you put a seed in the ground it will turn into a plant and you can eat that plant for free. It will just burst forth from the earth. You can treat other animals with respect and acknowledge that their lives are not inherently worth less than yours. Here is something else: The system is just as fake as the walls of the garden. It was all made up by people like you. You can choose to participate in it or you can choose to limit your participation. Think about the things you have and think about the things you want. Think about the things you need. Feel the sunlight on your face. You are a garden and you can never be cast out.