Collective Fictions

Collective Fictions

To start, a quick pig update:  It’s just above zero degrees fahrenheit at 7am, and the pigs are still curled up in the warmth of their shelter.  But the sun’s coming around the bend, and soon they’ll be out snuffling around in the hay, their black bodies absorbing the sun’s warmth.   I’m just about to break into the third round bale of hay I’ve bought since November.  With the cold weather and lack of forage, the six of them are consuming about 500 lbs of hay in a month along with their daily ration of spent grain I collect from the neighborhood brewery.  My fundraising effort stands at $1564 thanks to thirty-one generous people.

Question:  What is it that sets us apart from other animals?  Intelligence and language are usually the top two answers, but the differences between humans and other animals in that regard is a matter of degree.  Perhaps I’m not asking the right question.  Perhaps the better question would be:  What is it about us that has brought us to the Anthropocene, a moment in Earth’s history marked by the dominance and influence Homo sapiens?  In a very short 70,000 years, we have gone from small bands of isolated hunters and gatherers to billions of people communicating via a vast global electronic network.   We have achieved this remarkable “success” by employing the power of collective fiction.  Our imaginations are filled with notions such as money, justice and human rights in an effort to live together cooperatively.   In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, writes:  “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality.  On the one hand the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.  As time went by the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”  People live and die every day for the sake of their collective fictions.  We now have several imagined entities in the possession of nuclear weapons.  Dangerous indeed.

So what does this have to do with my pigs?  There’s one overarching collective fiction stretching back centuries that continues to express itself in an insidious and powerful way.  And that is the fiction of human exceptionalism.   Many of us believed, not too long ago, that Earth sat at the center of the universe, and that all its resources; plant, animal and mineral; were ours to dominate, exploit and exhaust.  Endowed with this power by a supernatural Creator, humans were exempt from the rules that governed the rest of life.  Recognizing that pigs are intelligent, sensitive animals deserving our respect and admiration is counter to some version of this widely held narrative, and I fully understand that my efforts to save the lives of my pigs when viewed through the lens of this dominant collective fiction will be seen as an unnecessary act of foolishness.  I counter with a narrative of my own.

If you squash the 13.75 billion year history of the universe into a our own calendar year, our species shows up at 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve.  At three minutes to midnight, behaviorally modern humans are on the scene.  At 2 seconds to midnight, the global human population hovers around 500 million.  At 4/10’s of a second before midnight, we invent the internal combustion engine.  With three one thousandth’s of a second before midnight, there are 7 billion humans on Earth.  As the clock strikes midnight, we find that our collective fictions have put us in a precarious position.  We find that we are not as special as we once thought and that there are no exceptions to the rules that govern life on our planet.  And, suddenly, one small act of kindness toward a handful of pigs is not foolish but the first chapter in another, better story we tell ourselves.


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