Changing Perceptions of Life

Without water, our planet would be one of the billions of lifeless rocks floating endlessly in the vastness of the inky-black void.

– Fabien Cousteau

I have perceived the ocean and their energy here in a way that I have not before. At moments, the energy of the water flows through me and I get a deep connection to something ancient.

We have lived in harmony with the rhythms of the planet for the majority of our species' two-hundred-thousand-year history, anchoring our identity firmly in the physical world around us. Our surroundings not only served as a physical orientation for us, but also as a spiritual compass from which we began to explore our developing sense of self. This self-awareness was based on the fundamental understanding that our survival was dependent on maintaining a close connection with the life force that surrounded us. To gain access to the knowledge of how everything in our world was connected, we needed to nurture our relationship with our environment.

It was impossible to understand predators or prey without first understanding how they related to the world and within the world. We had to be aware of how these relationships changed in response to the shifting moods of our shared environment. Separating life and environment in any way would have been both counterintuitive and counterproductive. The sunbathing lizard and the sunburned rock, the spawning salmon and the milk-swimming river, the swimming fish and the raging ocean were all part of the same life process. To be self-aware meant to recognize and know oneself in the totality of life around one, rather than imagining oneself outside and separate from the world. Knowledge that has been passed down from indigenous peoples to the next generation for thousands of years, we destroy with a wink.

We have largely lost this sense of "embeddedness" in our modern cultures, and we now regard it as a naive belief system of indigenous cultures that gives power and soul to inanimate objects. Western scholars refer to this worldview as "animistic," and it is based on a philosophical tradition founded by Plato in the 4th century BC. He was one of the first to express the idea that the power of creation exists outside of the material world, establishing the concept of an eternal heavenly realm superior to the earthly body.

Although he advocated for the human intellect as the path to the divine realm, he also saw the world as a living embodiment of creative power, imbued with soul and agency. "This world is indeed a living being endowed with soul and intelligence... a single visible entity that contains all other living beings," he writes in one of his most important texts, the Timaeus. This was later translated into Latin as the "soul of the world," anima mundi. Plato thus experienced the world as a sentient, living whole, paving the way for Christianity - and later the scientific revolution - to separate and elevate man above the rest of life.

But, even before Plato, we began to distance ourselves from the close relationship with place that had sustained us for so long. Agriculture and farming created a schism between humans and the superhuman world. Whereas the entire land was once alive with its own history, we now imposed our will on certain areas, tamed the rocks and soil, and domesticated the plants and animals. The land beyond our fences became a threat, full of untamed forces ready to infiltrate our newly perceived security. We now had two relationships with our surroundings: the security and predictability of our enclosures (the places under our control) and the wilderness beyond. As our dominance spread across the land, the wilderness receded and with it our connection to the anima mundi, the living soul of the world.

The scientific revolution introduced a new element into this growing chasm: the concept of the world, indeed the entire universe, as a vast machine whose workings can be understood using René Descartes' new scientific method of reductionism. Descartes' belief that any phenomenon can be understood by studying its constituent parts separately extended even to living animals, which he saw as nothing more than complex machines devoid of feelings or souls. The later success of Isaac Newton's reformulated differential calculus in predicting the trajectory of moving bodies like planets seemed to confirm this notion of a mechanistic universe that can be understood and eventually controlled by objective measurement and mathematical reason.

So now we had not only drawn a line between biological life and the non-living environment, but we had also redefined life as sentient and animate human life surrounded by all other life that was neither sentient nor animate. In a strange way, we then reunited non-human life and its non-living environment by giving it a name - Nature. Of course, not all Western thinkers held this view. Even among scientists - including Charles Darwin - there were those who found the idea of a world in which humans were the only sentient beings deeply disturbing. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, it seemed that the physical world could indeed be controlled and exploited for the sole benefit of mankind through the rapid development of technology and the use of increasingly powerful machines.

The only place that still seemed beyond our reach was the wide open ocean. Somehow the ocean beyond the near shore still held the mystery of the unknown, the untamable. In this context, it was still alive to us, capable of exerting its free will on anyone who dared to step onto its vast body. Survival depended on the intimacy of our relationship with her rhythms and changing moods. The mariner who neglected this relationship would soon find the ocean a cruel and heartless mistress, while those who paid attention understood that she had no favorites and dispensed neither punishment nor reward, but welcomed everyone at their own peril.

But as the 20th century progressed, even the vastness of the ocean became subject to our relentless pursuit of dominion. Our new oil-driven technology not only opened the entire ocean to exploitation, but also drove a stake into the heart of this last bastion of our connection to the anima mundi.