Thinking Inside the Box: Reshaping the Human Earth Narrative

At a Humanities Center lecture, Duke Divinity School professor Norman Wirzba discussed how the way human beings narrate their relationship to the earth has changed over time to promote an inharmonious human agenda with disastrous ecological consequences.  

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 26, 2017)—“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” writes Shakespeare in As You Like It. Yet what happens when human beings actually view the earth as a platform and themselves merely as agents separate from the environment they inhabit? At a recent Humanities Center lecture, Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School, explained the importance of harmonious ecological relationships and the inseparability of all life forms from planet Earth.

“I want to suggest how we narrate the world, to each other and to ourselves, has a whole lot to do with how we’re going to act within it,” Wirzba said. Wirzba’s current research focuses on how human beings have characterized their world through time, and how a modern earth narrative has changed the way we interact with the environment to our detriment.

“If you go back to Aristotle, philosophers believed that we lived in a container,” Wirzba explained. “The metaphor of the container was very powerful, but the notion . . . that goes along with the world as a container is a kind of separation between the container and what it contains.”

This idea of separation has its consequences, and is increasingly apparent in the environmental crises we face today. The belief that human beings will have to live separately from the world when it is no longer inhabitable, for example, is frequently expressed by those advocating for future Moon or Mars colonies.

“Even Stephen Hawking is saying we may have 100 to 200 years before we’re going to have to colonize another planet,” Wirzba said. “Hawking may be a brilliant physicist and mathematician, but he’s a terrible philosopher. It is inconceivable – ridiculous, in fact – to think that we could live on another planet.”

Wirzba explained that Hawking assumes that the places we inhabit are optional, when in reality they never have been. The problem behind this skewed perspective originates from the way humans have narrated or philosophically framed their relationship to the world. Though we have convinced ourselves we live separately from the world, Wirzba believes that this idea could not be farther from the truth. 

Wirzba argued that it is imperative to reexamine this narrative of separation and recognize just how essential the earth and its diverse networks and systems are for all processes of life. “Life is not a property within things. Life is a process of movement within a field that is already alive, such that to be extricated from that field is to be dead.”

To provide evidence of this, Wirzba discussed microbiomes and how life is dependent on even the tiniest colonies of organisms for survival. “The microbiome consists of the trillions of organisms inside your body that are indispensable to all cellular function, to digestive processes and to neurological function,” Wirzba said. “If these microorganisms cease to exist in you, you could not possibly live.”

Wirzba explained the symbiotic relationship between microbiomes and humans through a study on breast milk. Wirzba cited a study in which scientists noticed that mothers produced more milk than the child could digest, leading to the discovery that mothers are not merely producing breastmilk for the child, but are also feeding the microbiome within the child. 

“This is really, really important to understand because this is another way of helping us see that relationality is at the very heart of who we are,” Wirzba continued. “Life is a groping movement that seeks dense, diverse entanglements, and the more we can get the entanglements going, the more resilient the life will be.”

Wirzba said that educators’ next great task is to help re-create a narrative that expresses the importance of our entanglements with nature, as well as narratives that express what responsible life on Earth would look like.

“So when we start talking to each other about where we are, we should say we’re not primarily shoppers or on a platform or a stage,” Wirzba concluded. “We have to figure out modalities of life that create conditions of respect and care.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of the Humanities Center and Wikimedia Commons.