As the Cop26 climate summit gets under way, scientists and activists are in broad agreement that our prevailing cultural system has placed us, and our planet, on a course to disaster. They agree that it is time to change course. Yet, at this critical moment, we find ourselves paralysed, with new horizons closed off by a false prospectus of human possibilities based on mythological conceptions of history.
We need only look at the notion that underpins our idea of human development. In this story, our species originated in egalitarian bands of hunters and foragers, at one with their surroundings, only to somehow fall from grace into a state of inequality. In this “coming-of-age” fairytale, we humans began in innocence and then developed by way of a voyage of technological discovery – from foragers to farmers to fossil fuels – that enabled our “advancement”, but saw us relinquish our original freedoms. We became “civilised”, only to find ourselves locked in a tug of war with nature that now threatens the planet.
Creativity, we are told, was always 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 when we remained prisoners of our own creations.
We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress?
But as it turns out, nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.
To be clear, myth itself is not the problem here. As all societies have their science, all societies have their myths. The problems start when we mistake our myths for physical or social science. In fact, the larger mythical structures of history we’ve deployed for the past several centuries simply don’t work any more: they are impossible to reconcile with a flood of new evidence about the human past that’s now before our eyes. And the categories and meanings they encourage are tawdry, shop-worn and politically disastrous.
In recent decades, our scientific means of understanding the past, both of our species and our planet, have been advancing with dizzying speed. Scientists in 2021 may not be encountering alien civilisations in distant star systems, but we are encountering radically different forms of society under our feet: forgotten ways of being human and living together in large numbers. Paths not taken.
We are finding evidence of garden cities without centres, governed in truly democratic ways; of societies that adapted with the seasons, switching freely between modes of livelihood and organisation – egalitarian and hierarchical – as they did so; we see, in the mirror of our past, coalitions and confederacies the size of empires, held together by cooperation and consensus, not force.
Humans may not have begun their history in a state of innocence, but they do appear to have spent most of it exercising a self-conscious aversion to authority. We know now that the world’s first city dwellers did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment or on each other; we also know that there are no laws of history compelling us to bind the future of the Earth system to the cut and thrust of our electoral politics or forcing us to apprehend a crisis of hospitality as a crisis of migration. Calling for citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of the magnitude of the climate crisis is not going against the grain of our social evolution; it is asking us to reclaim the spark of political creativity that gave life to the world’s first towns and cities, in the hope of discerning a future for the planet we all share.
It’s time to change the course of human history, starting with the past. We now appear to be heading into 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 the odds of colonial appropriation, genocide and pandemics of the past, they followed different paths into the future, maintaining systems of land management based on caretaking, not ownership or extraction, forms of democracy in which participation means checking, not flaunting, one’s ego.
Today, we have no excuses for inertia. Yes, we are haunted by spectres of our recent past, utopian dreams built on warped images of human history, which spawned monsters and nightmares. But to change the world, to tear a hole in the fabric of social reality and start again, is what makes us sapiens. As far back as our scientific evidence leads us into our own past, we find this to be true. Our ancestors were not the drab stick figures of evolutionary theory or philosophical speculation. Viewed against the backdrop of our entire history, we turn out to be a playful, inventive species that only recently got stuck in a deadly game of extraction and expansion – “you’re either growing or you’re dying” – and forgot how to change the rules.
My late friend David Graeber wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” To even begin this process, and however great the obstacles, we must allow ourselves to dream again, starting this time with the freedoms that made us human.
Not spiteful freedoms, taught to us by ancient slave-holders (legalistic freedoms conjured from the plight of another’s captivity and suffering; freedoms that make of us winners and losers, survivors and victims). But instead, freedoms underpinned by care and mutual aid, long familiar to those in the global south who avoided the worst traps we’ve laid for ourselves and whose fate is now tied to our own: the freedom to move away, to escape one’s surroundings, knowing you will be welcomed at the point of destination; to disobey arbitrary commands, knowing you will not be ostracised, but heard and debated. Based on these, we can take the freedom to reimagine and then remake our societies and our relationship with our planet in a new form.
David Wengrow is professor of comparative archaeology at University College London. He is the co-author with David Graber of The Dawn of Everything
Cop26 and a greener future, with George Monbiot
Join George Monbiot and guests exploring whether we can bring together social and climate justice to tackle industrial carbon emissions and the jobs crisis?
On Thursday 4th November, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 1pm PDT | 4pm EDT. Book tickets here.