Life-Centred not Human-Centred

Canadian designer Bruce Mau is a board member for the only new Canadian architectural school in over 40 years based in Sudbury, Ontario at Laurentian University. Its cosmology, as Mr. Mau describes, is life-centred rather than human-centred. It’s based in three cultures French, English and Indigenous. Students will hike through the wilderness for their learning as much as sit with a scale ruler.

Mau, Bruce. MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work

I sensed what living in that cosmology must be like most clearly when visiting Nunavut for a couple months, being among the Inuit and being taken out onto the land. The Inuit do not pretend to be the great force in the world; they become the land they are born to, become the walrus and the polar bear and the howling wind. To a wisdom and a way ever greater than themselves, they give themselves over. For that is their wisdom, a deep sense of life, that life is larger than they, and they are but a part of that greater life. To that higher order than themselves, they do homage. With that cosmology, that sense of their place in this planet, so then is the greater life available to them in its fullness. Life bestows to them life.

I saw how the western form of living, the controlled, managed and built environment is a prison for the Inuit, leads to much of their disconsolation; once on the land away from the roads and traffic and coop stores full of packaged goods, once returning to the land, if only for a day, their peace returns. Something of this is maybe what Philip Shepherd in New Self New World says was lost to us with the Axial age, that time when thought and being were severed in us.

We have come in our hubris to see ourselves, our capabilities, as superior to all things, and that attitude turns all things of the natural world into objects of our desire and exploitation. Our thoughts of ourselves as intelligent and grand creatures, superior in stature to all others, create ourselves to be independent of the natural world. We see the natural world as our resource, see not trees but lumber, have no thought for the life of a tree or a whale or a shark or a plant, except how it serves us our desire and possession, thoughts only for ourselves, our proficiency, our well-bing. And so we are armed to rampage throughout the planet scouring it for all we can, inventing huge machines, to do the work we could not do on our own, to scour even more and deeper. We applaud the machines demonstrating our superiority over all creatures, because our machines are so effective at scouring the earth and wiping out life. That permits us in our minds to ravage the sea and land, destroying habitats and wiping out species, bringing so many many to extinction or its brink, priding ourselves on our proficiency. Small boats risked death chasing down the great Sperm Whale, the Sperm whale being superior to us, but we humans invented better machines, spear gun rockets and explosives that made the hunting of whales easy, safe for humans, an industry and a sport, easily picking off the great beasts, the great beasts having not chance with us. And we started doing it for no great reason but we could kill them. We took them to the brink of extinction just because we could.

The Inuit have no way in their language to say I own, you own, they own. When living on the land, they knew if they brought the mammals to extinction that they, the Inuit, would die. They knew if they, humans, were to become extinct, the mammals would continue to flourish, the natural world going on, thriving, as it has for billions of years. The Inuit surviving in the North for thousands of years knew the order of things, the great good being Life, not humans. The English people, my lot, came to the North and wiped out the whales and killed their own industry in a single generation, motivated only by being rich, a sickness, a madness, a stupidity, my lot, the affluent nations of the world have not let up on, and are now on track to kill their own species, wipe out our own selves.

The English thinking themselves so much more civilized and intelligent and superior to the Inuit; the English with their Buckingham palaces and regaled leaders and gold thrones, magisterially commanding wastelands of their own creation, in their grand designs of a human centred world, a world to serve their god-like dreams. Shiploads, thousands of ships bringing fur and lumber and silk and spices to England’s shores for the indulgence of the people and huge profits to the tyrants of business, and in their wake a ravaged northern hemisphere and a ravaged southern hemisphere. Sheer madness that we assume to be normal.

The Grand Banks in my generation went from the richest fishing ground in the world to nothing, since my childhood great abundance of food and life to now scraped bare, all life exterminated, a few companies profiting and gone, the money invested in our rape and pillage of land and sea. Going on without end, except there is an end, as Bruce Mau above writes, there are real limits to natures bounty.

Had my lot seen Life as the centre of the universe, honoured life over their hubris, recognized life above the human hubris, then the Grand Banks would still be the richest fishing grounds in the world, feeding us delights of the sea. But in the human stupidity of thinking itself the centre of all things, indifferent to the centrality of life, now nothing exists where once was life, and now remains a fishing area where no human could sustain its life. A human-centred approach inevitably ends in the destruction of Life itself. A life-centred approach is but life itself, we a part of it, we dependent on the greater wisdom of the natural world, we not the most intelligent creatures, but creatures of the planet most of all unwise.

All is lost because human greed and hubris is not the order of the world, not how the world is and exists. And so, as with Bruce Mau’s current project title, what is needed is Massive Change.

To see ourselves as the centre of all life, if that governs our choices and behaviour, then our misplaced arrogance will destroy us, for that is not the way of the world, not the way things are. If we see life all about us and that life as the centre of our own being, that more than us, the life around us is how things are, then honouring all life ensures our survival, our continuation. If we are to stop acting as if we own life and see instead that life owns us, and to life we must defer, defer in all humility, not offend, not debase, not insult that life, for life is intolerant of our hubris, to return, the prodigal to our mother earth, believe and know once again that life, not human hubris, exists at the centre of things, is the way things are, and surely then we might have life, might find our humanity, see ourselves as but part of a great life of all things, know again as if for the first time, life.