Your body is a democracy. At the cellular level, the best estimate is that you have about 724 trillion citizens; at the microbial level, it’s more like 100 thousand billion, with around 1,200 different species in your intestines alone. Much of the time, this vast, populous democracy functions extremely well, or you would not be reading this. When it doesn’t—when some of the citizens aren’t getting what they need—chances are you’ll know it.
No one knows how many creatures inhabit Earth. Even efforts to understand how many species there are fall apart in uncertainty, with the best estimate being around 8.7 million, and that’s without microorganisms, parasites, and hitherto undiscovered critters; scientists identify around 18,000 “new” species a year.
Humans have long assigned importance to these planet-mates according to their apparent usefulness to our goals, considering ourselves to be the apex, above the “dumb animals” who make up “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Alfred Tennyson phrased it.
Simple observation gives the lie to this. Watch a flock of birds settle in a tree, then take wing as if with one mind. Watch a school of fish. We may not know how they communicate, but it’s obvious that they do. Honeybees choose their hive locations as a group, with scouts verifying the queen’s opinion till the whole crew reaches consensus. Red deer, chimpanzees, African buffalo, cockroaches, baboons, and pigeons all live by the basic principle of democracy: collective decisions that lead to group survival.
This democratic principle applies between species as well. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes many instances of this among plants and fungi; perhaps the most obvious being that plants create fruit as a delicious reward for spreading their seeds, a clear win for all. We are barely beginning to comprehend the ways in which a forest or meadow collaborates to keep things humming along, but what we are beginning to know is impressive.
We belong to a democracy of species (which happens to be the title of Kimmerer’s forthcoming book) whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, our perception of ourselves as the be-all and end-all of it all leads us to act in ways that, when an individual within our acknowledged human democracy adopts them, could only be described as sociopathic.
It’s not an easy position to give up, this sense of dominance. The World Economic Forum (WEF), global elite that they are, has begun acknowledging our impact on fellow citizens of this global democracy, organizing the agenda of their 2021 gathering at Davos around course corrections in the direction of sustainability. A video produced promoting their ideas contained the provocative line, “You will own nothing, and you’ll be happy.”
Woah. A statement like that coming from those folks pretty much begs for an uproar, and they’re getting one. “We will own nothing, and we’ll be happy,” would have been more impressive. Objections range from the reality-deficient—human activity is fine the way it is, extractive approach and all, the whole notion of sustainability is a Huge Conspiracy to convert citizens into drones while the elite continue on their merry way, to the harder-to-dismiss: how much can we trust the global elite to do anything right, isn’t it more likely that they’re making friendly noises at us in an attempt to stave off the pitchforks and torches?
Valid question. Yet it seems like progress, albeit faltering progress, that a sustainable economy is even being considered at such levels, previously committed to limitless economic extraction. How to achieve the fairer, cleaner, greener planet that the WEF claims to want is a question fraught with unknowns and possible unintended consequences.
Google “sustainable” news and you’ll find tidbits of emergent hope. Renewable energy is now less expensive than coal. Companies are responding to demand with sustainable packaging and commitments to net-zero. Sustainable jet fuel, “green steel,” and sustainable egg production are, if not yet widely adopted, at least firmly embedded in the conversation, as is the idea of a circular supply chain.
Yet until we consider an entirely new mindset—that of the democracy of species, all life being given consideration as having natural rights, humans taking on responsibilities to the oceans, rivers, and forests, we’ll continue to miss the point. Humans keep longing for a prettier suit, terrified of ripping this one off and standing naked beside our fellow beings.
What might a democracy of species look like? “We propose two new enabling structures for ecological inclusion and governance: 15 regional ecosystem assemblies to cover the Earth’s major biomes, and an Earth System Council to coordinate integrated action, both of which include and channel representation from states, indigenous communities, and proxy guardians for the non-human,” write researchers Anthony Burke and Stefanie Fishel in “Across Species and Borders: Political Representation, Ecological Democracy and the Non-Human.”
That’s a lot to expect from a power structure that made cannabis illegal to grow or possess because of its potential to compete with extracted products. Even now that hemp is legal, we’re still allowing economic factors to stand in the way of its potential to provide fuel, food, fabric, and building materials.
But nothing can stop us adopting Robin Wall Kimmerer’s perspective—that it is long past time that we recalled that we don’t truly own anything anyway, we’re only using it for a while. We’re sustained by gifts, and reciprocity is the only path to abundance. As individual humans, we may feel unable to bring this awareness to the corridors of power. Ten years ago, would you have believed Mercedes Benz would be committing to using green steel in its cars? It’s impossible to know today whether all our concerns may turn out to be too little, too late—but every voice raised, every life lived as a citizen of a democracy of species is another note of hope in the vast symphony of the universe.