A Dreadful Disharmony

The other day I read an inspiring interview with environmental philosopher Pierre Rabhi in the French newspaper Libération.

Although he’s known for his life’s work in agroécologie, Rabhi stresses that simply eating organic food isn’t going to be enough by itself to save the world. He has a much broader vision of the social changes that will be necessary, but warns that the way ahead is blocked by ignorant people defending the current system: “Unfortunately, these people have the power to set the course of history. It’s a tragedy: our destiny has been left in the hands of unintelligent people.”

That evening, I happened to be rewatching The Sacrifice, the superb 1986 film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky – the last he made before dying of cancer at the age of 54. This includes an important monologue about civilisation, delivered by the central character Alexander (played by Erland Josephson), amidst the sighing of the wind through a beautiful little Swedish wood overlooking the sea.

It immediately struck me that there was a correlation between the words of Rabhi and Alexander. They complemented each other, fitted together perfectly as harmonies of one and the same prophetic chorus of alarm that is warning humankind of an unimaginably dire future ahead, unless we are somehow able to dramatically change the course of our history.

In the newspaper interview (with Coralie Schaub) Rabhi describes the quality of his simple life in rural Ardèche: “I look out on magnificent countryside, I enjoy the sound of birdsong, the sky, the stars, these are the great gifts that life brings us. What is all the other stuff about? Earning money to be able to go and do winter sports, or get a tan? What do you want life to be? Are we just here on earth to make our personal contribution to a rise in the GNP, then disappear? … We’re living in a society which has transformed the human being into a kind of salaried slave. Some are lucky enough to do a job they love. But many are forced to waste away their life because they need a wage. And once they’re no longer needed, they’re thrown on the scrap heap. What sort of society is that? That’s what my revolt is all about.”

Alexander, in The Sacrifice, laments that man has constantly violated nature: “The result is a civilization built on force, power, fear, dependence. All our ‘technical progress’ has only provided us with comfort, a sort of standard. And instruments of violence to keep power. We are like savages! We use the microscope like a cudgel! No, that’s wrong… Savages are more spiritual than us! As soon as we make a scientific breakthrough we put it to use in the service of evil.”

Says Rabhi: “I’m not an angry sort of person, but there are moments when my indignation pushes me to that point, because the stakes are so very high. This is all about future generations. What we are we going to feed them on when the seeds have disappeared and the land has been destroyed? Humanity has got to understand that it can’t go on destroying life. Do humans need nature? Yes. Does nature need humans? No. If you’ve understood that, you’ve understood everything. Either we carry on tangling ourselves up in wrong-doing and destruction and we end up wiping ourselves out, or we understand that we have to collaborate with life, with this extraordinary mystery which made us and from which we get our food.”

Tarkovsky’s Alexander concludes: “Some wise man once said that sin is that which is unnecessary. If that is so, then our entire civilisation is built on sin, from beginning to end. We have acquired a dreadful disharmony, an imbalance if you will, between our material and our spiritual development. Our culture is defective, I mean our civilisation… If only someone could stop talking and do something instead.”