“Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures, but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume,” Robbin Wall Kimmerer ¹
Our current world is characterized by inequality: social, economic, and environmental. These inequalities manifest at every scope and scale, be it who gets called back for an interview, which countries receive disaster relief from international aid organizations, or the species and ecosystems that are considered less valuable than the oil and coal who share their home. We live in a world with a few people own more wealth than entire nations, and entire nations of people who live on less than a dollar a day; billionaires are actively profiting off a global pandemic while people lose their jobs, homes, and lives.² Anywhere you look, greed, selfishness, and competition drive unthinkable destruction and pain on the world’s people, plants, animals, and non-living beings.
In inspiring book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein argues that much of our social and environmental woes stem from what he calls the Story of Separation.³ This story, he explains, traces back centuries, even millennia, as the growing separation of people from themselves, each other, and from the Earth. This separation arguably rose to prominence during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, with Newton’s groundbreaking discoveries of the laws of physics. These scientific advancements marked the dawn of a new belief in how the world — and all its natural and human-made systems — functioned, and dictated humans apply discerning logic when analyzing phenomena and systems. No longer were people to be “held back” by lore, religion, spirituality, and intuition — we had entered the Age of Reason.
The assumption underlying the Newtonian or mechanistic worldview is that the world is orderly, predictable, and merely the sum of its discrete parts. A clock divides time into discrete units that never vary; the mechanism of the clock itself merely an assemblage of gears, that, taken apart and reassembled, should work just as it did before. We became obsessed with predictions, cause and effect, separation, reason, and reducing items into their basest parts. It is true that clocks work this way, as do other machines. But as Wendell Berry, beloved farmer and poet, reminds us,
…it must at once be understood that a healthy organ does not — as the mechanistic or industrial mind would like to say — “give” health to the body, is not exploited for the body’s health, but is a part of its health. The health of organ and organism is the same, just as the health of organism and ecosystem is the same.⁴
People, unlike machines, are not so simple; and neither are ecosystems, economies, governments, or carbon cycles, or countless other complex systems we attempt to manage like machines.
Later, with the industrialization of Western economies, our lives were broken down into parts, too. As Marx famously criticized, the modern factory is designed to alienate the worker from their labor and their product, as assembly lines replaced independent artisans. Like factory work, many other aspects of our lives became broken down into smaller parts, dictated by the belief in order and efficiency. We shifted from communal living situations to the nuclear household. We have shifted from education, often informal and focused on real-life skills and philosophy, into a highly regulated institution of schooling with oppressive regimentation, disconnected subject areas, and authoritative hierarchies. Even as our economies move away from factory work, our work lives are dictated by the mechanistic mindset, with strict hierarchies and departments, cubicles, and a mandated 9–5 schedule.
Our social and economic systems became separated, as well, commodity production chains are so long that they obfuscate the entire system. Who actually knows the whole history of the granola bar we bought at the grocery store? We do not know, and we are told not to care, not to worry ourselves. If we were to understand the true manner in which our food, our electronics, our clothes were made and transported to us, surely many of us would stand together in revolt, in disgust. But our lives are so busy, the supply chain so complicated and hidden, and we are told it is not our responsibility to care about these problems. We are too separated from the items we use in our daily life to know anything about them. The Story of Stuff exposes the linear nature of our consumer economy, beginning with violent extraction at the beginning, and polluting disposal at the end. In a sustainable system, this process would be circular, with materials being forever re-used.⁵ Further feeding the mechanization of work and economies is the assumption of unlimited growth. This growth is assumed to create more jobs, raise the standard of living, and ensure our country is a global economic superpower. However, the claim that economies can grow in perpetuity is not only a lie, but a logical and ecological impossibility. There are finite resources on this planet, a fact business leaders and politicians seem to misunderstand. Infinite growth economies are based on the assumption that we can extract more, build more, and export more. While there may be no limit to the imagination and creativity of the human mind, there are very clear limits to natural resources and the amount of exploitation and mishandling the Earth can accommodate. The myth of infinite growth is essentially a pyramid scheme. Multiple economic models have been proposed — and are even practiced on small scales — that recognize our finite resources and promote their sustainable use.It is this separation that compels us to live in ignorance of the complex systems of inequality, exploitation, and oppression in this world. As Donella Meadows, famed systems scientists, tells us, flaws in a system have many causes, but one is when the feedback system is delayed, diverted, or ignored.⁶ In a healthy system, a negative change to a system would yield negative feedback, which would prompt the system to adapt until it reached equilibrium again. However, if something is interfering with that feedback, we might continue in an unsustainable system, completely oblivious to the unintended consequences. Many of our current systems are in fact unhealthy and unsustainable, yet because of this intentional separation we do not receive the negative feedback to inform change; instead, we continue to live our lives, ignorant of the dis-ease brewing, of the bubble about to burst.
This is the Story of Separation: the growing divide between our sense of self and those around us; the insistence that we must “transcend” our basic human instincts to love, build community, nurture, and connect to be happy, wealthy, and healthy. We are told to put our emotions aside and think rationally. We are told that order, technological advancement, mechanization, and industrialization form a divine path towards enlightenment, when, in actuality, these processes coddle us in ignorant bliss. As Eisenstein writes:
I never fully accepted what I was offered as normal. Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed hate Mondays…We were not supposed to be indoors on a beautiful day, day after day…. As my horizons broadened I knew that millions were not supposed to be starving, that nuclear weapons were not supposed to be hanging over our heads, that rainforests were not supposed to be shrinking, or the fish dying, or the condor and eagles disappearing. I could not accept the way the dominant narrative of my culture handled things: as fragmentary problems, unfortunate facts of life to be regretted, or unmentionable taboo subjects to be simply ignored. On some level, we all know better.³
We can tell that this is not the way we are meant to live, not the way the world is supposed to work. We can feel it in our bones, but we cannot identify the cause; we just have a lingering doubt that we cannot always ignore. Eisenstein argues that many of our social woes, such as chronic illness, addiction, depression, alienation, debt, hate, and fear all stem from our lack of faith in the system we are continuously instructed to believe in.
We are raised to believe that we are the protagonists of the most important story ever, and that we should concern ourselves only with what will make us “objectively” happy, such as wealth, fame, and admiration. We are instructed to accept that we must compete with others to gain these things, as they are scarce and we live in a zero-sum world, where my happiness depends on your unhappiness. I must compete with Sandra to get the promotion, or I must have a better car than my neighbor. Never is there an option to share, cooperate, or disengage from the power struggle. Phrases like “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there,” and “Survival of the fittest,” motivate us to view our neighbors as enemies, as wealth and notoriety the ultimate prize, and to fight for what are ever dwindling reserves of what we want most.
It is this separation that breeds fear and insecurity in us, that compels us to ruthlessly compete, and to ignore the plight of endangered species, of refugees, or old-growth forests because those are not our problems. We are forever seeking an unattainable dream of perfect wealth, happiness, and prestige, both feeling overwhelmed by the harsh reality we experience and the knowledge that something is wrong with this strategy. It is this separation that allows multi-national companies to commit environmental and social atrocities that are buried by bureaucracy, oppression, ignorance, and self-interested self-preservation. We are over-worked, stressed, and isolated on the never-ending rat race.This separation pushes us to take and to compete and to steal; we neglect our families and our true passions in life to work extra hours so we can take a better vacation next year; we look away with a mixture of guilt and judgement when we stop at a light and see a panhandler, obviously in need of some compassion and spare change. It is this separation that drives discrimination and hate crimes, as we feel compelled to blame someone else for our unavoidable struggles within this impossible system. It is this separation that leads to war, global conflicts, trade embargoes, imperialism, closed borders, and refugees with nowhere to go.
But the world does not have to be this way. We can challenge the Story of Separation, challenge the lie of scarcity, and challenge the rat race. We do not need to compete. The Story of Separation is simply that: a story. We can learn a new story. Learning a new story will be difficult, as it relies not on a shift in laws or policies (although those are helpful), but instead on an overhaul in how we understand the world: a shift in consciousness. As the next section will explore, education holds the power to break this unsustainable and unjust cycle by challenging current dominant paradigms and cultivating in students the skills, perspectives, and insights to build a better world. I look to the Permaculture Ethic of Fair Share as an alternative paradigm for a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable future.
¹ Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, By Robin Wall Kimmerer ²Bezos, Musk: World’s richest people smashed wealth records this week ³ The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, By Charles Eisenstein ⁴ Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World, Edited by Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow, Preface by Fritjof Capra ⁵ The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health — And How We Can Make It Better By Annie Leonard ⁶ Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows