The Last Myth To Fall
It started off as a rumour in the sixteenth century: Earth moves around the Sun and is not at the centre of the universe. Everyone knew that the Sun and planets orbited the Earth – it was the orthodox model across the Christian world at the time – and so the idea of reorganising the heavens was considered to be nothing short of heresy.
Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus kept his revolutionary thinking on the cosmos to himself, afraid of the wrath of the church and of the public. A popular story is that a first edition of the book about his new theory was brought to him on his deathbed. Only after he died would the rest of the world learn about our fall from the centre of the universe
As more scientists and thinkers became convinced that Copernicus was correct, the Catholic church’s attitude towards this point of view hardened and his book was placed on the church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Renown astronomer Galileo was no only told that he should not publicly state his belief that Earth moved around the Sun but was also sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633 for good measure. Others were not so lucky, such as fellow Italian Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for holding similar views.
Evidently, not everyone appreciates a radical shift in their worldview. Unfortunately, it’s one thing to accept that our planet is not the centre of the universe but quite another to accept that we, as humankind, do not belong at its apex. From the 1700s onwards, the Sun no longer orbited the Earth – but it did not automatically follow that we would consider ourselves to be any less important.
Fast forward to today, when we are asked to accept an even more profound and existential shift. Rumour has it, for it is not accepted orthodoxy, that humans are merely a part of nature and not above it. This alternative worldview is grounded in the inherent worth of the environment and living beings regardless of their utility to human needs and in recognising our place within this web of life.
This viewpoint is counter to the false promise of endless global economic growth and the hubris that humankind can (and has the right to) control nature. Evidence that we have entered the Anthropocene era serves to reinforce the belief in our own self-importance that has led humanity to the precipice of the current environment and climate crisis. In its place, a ‘systems worldview’ offers an alternative belief in which the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behaviour.
Conceiving of our role within nature has implications for how people choose to live their lives. Our true place within a dynamic and symbiotic system is one where we behave as if there is an end to what is finite – clean water, fossil fuels, atmospheric space to absorb emissions, topsoil, biodiversity – before we reach any of these end points. What we lose in egocentrism is replaced by the awe of belonging to a much richer universe. Perhaps inevitably this myth of our centrality is the last myth to fall. And when it does, it is not hard to reimagine the potential for greater wellbeing and enjoyment by being part of something more significant than us.