Empire and Time

In the south of France lies Chauvet Cave. This subterranean museum contains some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings in the world, offering us a glimpse of life through an incomprehensible abyss of time, to some 30,000 years ago.

The world the paintings depict seems unreal and fantastical: bears and antelope and bison and horses and bulls and rhinos and on the paintings go. Back then, we lived in a much colder and drier place but the sun still shone, so there was still life in abundance and – as the paintings show – incredible diversity.

This art still tells a story. Not only of then, but of now, and of the passage of time in between. A story of changing climates. A story about loss of diversity. What I learned from Chauvet Cave was another story too: one about colonisation and imperialism. A story that questioned the idea of “sustainability” as I understood it.

And I thought I understood it well. I am studying that very subject in detail at my university. But even as a well-versed student in that field, fully immersed in that area, my virtual wandering via online research and YouTube documentaries revealed to me a huge gap in my knowledge.

So, there was a moment. Something I saw that changed me. Not inspiration, but realization. It flashed across my mind, connecting a thousand different thoughts, and asking a thousand difficult questions, inviting reflection on things I’d come to hold close. Things I’d believed in.

That’s the story I want to share – now that finally, I might have found a place to speak it, where others might hear.

It starts with Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, which is an utterly enthralling exploration of this place that I recommend diving into if you have the time. Their on-site film beautifully captures not only the art, but the natural artistry that frames it all. The cave itself is a thing of wonder: everything is crystalline from the slow accumulation of calcite so the walls, and stalagmites and other features of the cave all sparkle in the harsh light of the cameras.

The meticulously preserved grounds of the cave are littered with the bones of many animals, and they too are covered in a mineral snow that glimmers strangely. The camera lingers long enough on these scenes – away from the paintings – to encourage an appreciation of an even greater artist at work here. Quietly and out of view, this artist etched their own stories over the interceding millennia between human visits to this hidden gallery; one that I would argue rivals the Louvre in importance.

I say that because of two paintings there and the story they tell about an entirely different way of life that existed before colonial times. An awe-inspiring culture quite different from ours. The image is of two bulls that look identical, as if painted by the same artist, or around the same time period.  Here is Werner, from the documentary, explaining what you see:

‘…there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. A striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history, and they were not.’

Werner Herzog, Cave of forgotten dreams

It’s hard to describe what those words and the art itself evoke, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around this idea. Is it possible that life was so consistent, so continual, that for five thousand years not much changed at all? Is that what the paintings are saying? The questions alone invite a wholly different way of thinking about sustainability to the one I feel I’ve learned about so far. But surely this is one of the most profound examples one can see of sustainability, no?

Two near-identical pieces of art, overlapping, separated by five thousand years. A statement of cultural continuity spanning a frame of time we today – advanced as we consider our culture – would struggle to imagine.  

If that’s a statement, it’s one hell of a statement!

From the perspective of this boringly typical member of a Western culture that is struggling to survive another year – let alone five thousand – this painting is fucking startling. Better yet, keeping in mind my ancestors once called themselves Settlers, I could describe it as unsettling.

Unmoored from the perspective of a civilization that appears all too fragile, verging on catastrophic, we can see another way of life that extended over timespans that feel impossible to us with all of these modern problems we’ve created for ourselves.

The writer and engineer Nick Arvin, whose blog post inspired me to watch the documentary, describes it beautifully:

‘They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.’

Nick arvin, Reading Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

To help us wrap our heads around this idea, Arvin then points to another rabbit hole: a short story called Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M Coetzee who approaches the same idea from the perspective of the colonizing force. The book’s narrator is the magistrate of a frontier town in some unknown “Empire” that serves to represent imperialism more generally. Beyond the frontiers, the native people, known as Barbarians, exist in harmony with the land, as did the people who once decorated Chauvet Cave. Coetzee sums up the different worldview of imperialism, contrasting it against Chauvet’s “Two Bulls” in this way:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

These two different conceptualizations of time speak to an insurmountable incongruity between cultures. The “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” is contrasted against the “jagged time of rise and fall”. Coetzee’s gorgeously dense imagery transports a litany of ideas but one here rings loudest: the grounding of one’s self in the environment – the cycle of the seasons – the cyclical nature of life and death, set against the refusal to die. A belief in a self that is separated from nature, and thus, can conquer nature and its cycles. The “jagged time of rise and fall” – what we colonialists call history. Call progress. Call success. Call utopia.

Empire’s “submerged mind” has overlooked some things. We can sense it now, in the Apeilicene, as even the things we clutch for in our dreams turn to ash. Turn against us. Turn us against ourselves, and each other. “Save us from what we want”.

As the documentary later describes, these paintings were drawn by homo sapiens, in a time and space they shared with other human species like Neanderthals. The art, it is claimed, was a uniquely human endeavour; not something Neanderthals engaged in. That tells me that even back then, we must have realized (maybe even quite keenly felt) that we were somehow different from our fellow animals – even ones very like us.  

And despite this, or perhaps because of it, these people managed to live for thousands of years in harmony with everything else. Bisons and bulls and bears.  

Now, we see ourselves as fundamentally different and disconnected from nature – an idea that permeates our language, our thought, and our actions.


Stepping away once again from the cave art, we have to appreciate the even greater stories that this landscape tells us, and the questions it makes us ask. In one area of the cave floor there are two footprints: one belonging to a young boy, and another, to a wolf. What could these footprints, etched in calcite and the hardening of time, possibly tell us? Herzog plays out the scenarios: Was the boy being stalked by the wolf? Or were the two perhaps walking together? Perhaps instead, the two imprints – boy, and wolf – are separated by thousands of years?

We cannot know. Nature will not let us know.

She has her secrets, and this, we must respect.


In a sense, it’s easy to understand colonialism, imperialism, and colonisation at a kind of “surface” academic level because they are just ideas with characteristics and features. Ideas like any other. But when people encourage others to “decolonize” their understanding of something, it feels to me like they’re often talking about something else too; something that goes beyond just learning about a new idea and its characteristics. Part of that feels like it’s experiential; that learning about this stuff involves doing and being a part of something. Part of that feels like a radical questioning, where “de-colonizing” might resemble “de-programming”. Not just thinking about things differently, but doing things differently too. Embracing that knowledge over time. Recognizing that we cannot always find meaning in things, that we cannot know all. Camus might smile at that.


Going deeper with philosophy

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them.

Discussions about how we should act; what is right, what is moral, and what is just – these are the philosophical domain of ethics. Ethical discussions, assumptions, and beliefs underpin much of our society; from how we structure it politically and legally, to what we consider socially acceptable.

The scientific method, a crucial tool for understanding environmental and other problems, is grounded in philosophical ideas too – a mixture of rationality, empiricism, and the logic of induction. These ideas belong to the philosophical domain known as epistemology – essentially, the study of knowledge.


Logic

Note that between the concepts of rationality and empiricism, there is a separation of mental and sensory faculties (the mind and the body, more simply). This is discussed in the next section on dualism.

Ethics and knowledge are just two examples. Big ideas too, like how we should think about death, immortality, annihilation and existential risk are all clearly relevant now too, as we face down a multitude of threats. 

Dualism

The dichotomy of “human” and “nature” mentioned earlier (metabolic rift) is echoed in philosophical ideas. Cartesian dualism, which takes its name from the ideas of French philosophe Rene Descartes, introduces the idea that the human mind is different from the human body; that they are two distinct and separable entities. It is also sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism.

The mind, in this idea, is often viewed as non-physical; something that cannot be reduced to explanations that rely on neurobiology (the science of the mind) and physics (the science of basic reality – how things work at every level from atomic to cosmological). This specific claim about the non-physicality of the human mind is referred to in philosophy as property dualism.

It can be argued that Cartesian dualism and property dualism have contributed to our separation from nature. We often view the human mind as the prime point of separation between us and “animals”. It is human ingenuity, adaptability, intelligence, willpower, and genius that we often feel makes us unique. From the perspective of property dualism, the difference is also not just one of “human versus natural”, therefore, but also “mental versus physical”. This model suggests that our anthropocentric bias is partly driven by a belief in a type of human non-physicality. This might explain, for example, our collective reluctance to come to grips with the very physical impacts and constraints of our world, and the very physical consequences of our actions.

ExistComic1
ExistComic
A comic about dualism, from Mohler, 2019[1].

Sustainability and your mental health

First published: February 25, 2018 for Woroni[2]. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.

I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.

The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.

I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.

The existentialists

In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’. To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.

My problem with sustainability

Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting. We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.

How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!

What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving. The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.

As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.

For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.

Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.

The Fall

There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.

Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.

We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.

But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular –  as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.

Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise.  It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.


Footnotes

[1] Mohler, C. (2019). Captain Metaphysics and the Ghost in the Machine. Retrieved from Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/47

[2] Blood, N. (2018, February 25). Sustainability and Your Mental Health. Woroni.