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The Bionarrative: a Summary

Document 1 to read before responding to Question 1

The survival of civilisation and the future wellbeing of humankind will depend on a radical shift to a society that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life – a biosensitive society. However, there is no way this shift will happen unless and until there comes about a wave of new understanding sweeping across the dominant cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature. We refer to this story as the bionarrative and to the understanding of the bionarrative as biounderstanding.

Indeed the most essential feature of a biosensitive society will be the fact that biounderstanding will be embedded at the core of its cultural system, leading to profound respect for the life processes on which we depend.

Why is understanding the bionarrative so important? At a general level, it  conveys a sense of perspective crucial for understanding the true nature of the human situation on Earth today.

More specifically:

It tells us about the history of life on Earth and about the coming and going, especially over the past 600 million years, of myriads of life forms, leading to the rich network of interacting and interdependent living organisms that make up our world today.

It tells us about the fundamental evolutionary, physiological and ecological processes and principles on which all life and human civilisation depend.

It tells us about the principles of health and disease in animals and plants.

It tells us about the evolutionary emergence, some 200 000 years ago, of our own species, Homo sapiens.

It tells us how humans possess a biological attribute unique in the animal kingdom – the ability to invent, memorise and communicate with a symbolic spoken language.

It tells us how this aptitude for language led to the accumulation in human populations of shared worldviews, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes. That is, language led to human culture.

It shows how human culture emerged as a powerful new force in nature. It can lead to activities that are to the benefit of humans (cultural adaptations) or to activities that cause a great deal of unnecessary human distress or damage to the ecosystems on which we depend (cultural maladaptations).

The story thus alerts us to the brainwashing power of culture and of the need to be constantly vigilant – making sure that the worldview, assumptions and priorities of our cultures are in tune with the processes of life, and that they are not leading us to behave in ways that are against nature or causing unnecessary human suffering.

It tells us about the physical and psychosocial health needs of humankind as determined by our evolutionary background.

It tells us about the health needs of the planet’s ecosystems which support us.

It reminds us that our civilisation is a manifestation of life on Earth, that it is a product of biological evolution and that it is entirely dependent for its continued existence on the underlying processes of life. Keeping these processes healthy must be our top priority because everything else depends on them.

It tells us that human history has consisted of four quite distinct ecological phases: Ecological Phase 1 – the Hunter-gatherer phase; Ecological Phase 2 – the Early Farming Phase; Ecological Phase 3 – the Early Urban Phase; Ecological Phase 4 – the Exponential Phase. Phase 4 has also been dubbed the Anthropocene.

It tells us that the massive growth of the human population and explosive intensification of resources and energy use and waste production in ecological Phase 4 are unsustainable ecologically. Cultural maladaptations are now on a scale and of a kind that threaten the whole of humankind as well as countless other species.  If present trends continue unabated the collapse of civilisation is inevitable. The days of the Exponential Phase 4 of human history are numbered.

It shows that the dominant cultures that are driving human expansion across the globe today are unaware of these ecological realities. They have lost sight of the fact that we are part of nature and totally dependent on the processes of life within us and around us for our wellbeing and survival; and they have no grasp of the magnitude and seriousness of current human impacts on the biosphere.

Finally, and most importantly, the bionarrative tells us that best hope for the future lies in a transition to a fifth ecological phase – a Biosensitive Phase in which society is based on understanding the story of life and the human place nature and which is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the life processes of life. It will be a society that satisfies the health needs of all sections of the human population as well as those of the ecosystems of the biosphere.

By far the most urgent and critical challenge at the present time is therefore to spread biounderstanding across human communities worldwide as rapidly as possible.