My high school literature teacher said that any plot can be reduced to one of three basic conflicts: Man against nature, man against man, or man against self. I liked the idea of searching for the bare skeleton of a story, but noticed pretty quickly that many plots seemed to be some combination of the three. Her trichotomy fell short of reality. All the same, I think that simplification is a great tool for understanding complexity. A skeleton gives form to the soft tissue around it, which is often harder to describe and define. When we can see the sinews and bones laid bare, we can see the rest in a different way, the flesh and fat that magically bring to life a plot or person. That is why Leonardo da Vinci took the risk of excavating cadavers.
I am a compulsive reader, and in the long interlude since high school, my teacher's three conflicts have jumped to mind as I consumed stories ranging from The Brothers Karamazov to Peter Rabbit. But in recent years I've found myself interested in one story to the exclusion of all others: the grand story that we all are living. It is the story of a universe, and a small blue planet, and her transient fabric of life, and a fascinating self-conscious species of primates who love and kill and create -- of which I am one. Through the biggest or smallest lens this story is beautiful and terrifying and intricate. At no distance does it become vanishingly irrelevant. At no proximity does it break down into two dimensional pixels. There are subplots that take place in the course of seconds and subplots that emerge over millions of years.
I read this story partly in books -- glimpsed and analyzed by other human minds. I absorb it with my eyes and ears when I wake up to the sounds of birds and traffic. I feel it in my dusty sandals. I breathe it in. And beside it all stories by human authors pale. (Despite claims to the contrary, to a devoted reader it becomes laughably improbable that this great story was authored by a psychic primate, like ourselves only bigger and endowed with superpowers, who cares about whether small primates cover their heads or bow in obsequious praise.)
In our boundless capacity for arrogance, most humans think the great story is about us, though of course it is not. The only subplot of the great story that we humans can influence is the one playing out in the thin mesh of life on the crust of the blue planet, the story of our own destiny and the other species whose destinies are bound to ours. What we seek, according to mythos, history, and sociology, is life and happiness: healthy humans flourishing endlessly in a Garden of Eden. The surface of this planet records the chronicle of our quest.
For millennia we have lived as if we will attain this paradise through competition and conflict: beating nature and beating each other with spear and hoe and axe and gunship. The stories we tell and write reveal our identities -- who we are and what matters to us. And like my teacher said, the three conflicts are the stuff that most storytelling is made of. Conflict is the raw material of Barnes & Noble the way that corn syrup is the raw material of Coca Cola. It is also the raw material of Hollywood and new media and even the little narratives we create to explain our day over the dinner table. We love conflict. It grabs our attention. It pumps us full of adrenaline and resolve and a sense of the heroic. And since in our own minds we are, each of us, the protagonist of every story, the heroes are us.
But it struck me recently that when it comes to the story we are actually living, our subplot on the blue planet, my teacher's analysis may be not merely overly simple; it may be wrong. Sometimes in our attempts to make sense of complexities we reduce them to the wrong skeleton. In conflict stories -- man against man, or against nature, or against self -- the satisfaction comes when man, our protagonist, wins regardless of what happens to other species or even other humans. Our hero can emerge from the ashes of civilization on a post apocalyptic planet and we go home satisfied.
But what if reality is fundamentally different than our preferred fiction plotlines? What if the conflicts that are so satisfying in books and movies actually leave us less satisfied in real life? What if, in our perennial quest for Eden, beating nature and beating each other somehow means we lose? Or what if the fabric of health and bounty is made instead of something more mundane than winning and losing: Collaboration, for example. Mutuality. Interdependence. Unity. Balance. What if, as a species, we have come this far in spite of (rather than because of) our competition and conflict?
I'm sitting at an outdoor café in Toliara on the southern coast of Madagascar. It is a stark, dry town -- French Africa meets Old West -- surrounded by badlands and spiny scrub and a mud flat that serves as a tidal outhouse. In the streets, plastic bags swirl in dust devils like eddies of dry leaves, and a fine reddish brown powder covers everything from my computer screen to my eyelashes by the end of day. Cafes serve pain au chocolat for breakfast and foie gras for dinner. But after dark the police, who have been extorting money from passing drivers all day, go home and lock their doors. Armed bandits stake out the highway, using cell phones to coordinate up the road with compadres who roll stone blockades across canyon passes. Valuables like sapphires from a regional mine travel to the port by convoy -- by day -- accompanied by paid gunmen.
Scattered across the arid plain, poor villagers escape the banditry and extortion only because they own nothing of interest. Carts pulled by tough lean zebu (the local cattle) or by equally tough and lean humans haul their most precious commodity, water, which is in such short supply that people bathe and wash clothes on the roads whenever it rains. In pockets along the shore, where fresh water emerges into the sea, more prosperous villagers live on fish and shellfish, casting their nets from outriggers carved from baobab trees. The peculiar baobabs, which sport crowns of scrawny branches and sparse leaves, store water in vast soft trunks each of which can be carved into a single buoyant dugout.
On the face of it, this is the stuff of Hollywood or Barnes & Noble: Men triumph over the harsh environment, feeding on turtles, chameleons and grasshoppers when necessary to survive; resourcefully planting prickly pear cactus from afar to feed their cattle. Men battle the seas in small spry outriggers, competing with commercial fishing fleets offshore to feed their families and the occasional traveler. Cattlemen with spears fend off rustlers, tribes assert their identity in a post-colonial era, townsfolk defy bandits (and bandits in uniform) to keep their town running.
But in reality, the conflicts which necessitate these small acts of heroism may be largely a product of our self-fulfilling tendency to see the world as a set of conflict dynamics. In other words, they may be consequences of our failure to notice a larger narrative, which is that in the broadest sense, man against nature is man against man, and man against man is man against self. We exist only in community with each other and with other species. By triumphing too well too often, we destroy ourselves.
This desert in which I sit wasn't always a desert; living village elders can recall when things were different. It was a fragile "spiny forest" that survived in delicate balance for hundreds of thousands of years, has been in decline since humans arrived here and began winning battles against nature, and, according to World Wildlife Fund calculations, could be gone completely in just five years. There are no mature baobabs within walking distance of the fishing villages. The baobab takes up to 1000 years to grow and the last remaining giants stand on the far side of the desert plane. Mangrove swamps that served as nurseries for the migratory fish are largely gone. (Recently the media proudly featured a grove of newly planted mangrove seedlings and interviewed the lead volunteer. A week later, the seedlings had been eaten by goats.) The reef that nurtures the local varieties is a crumbling ruin, having fallen prey to rising temperatures. With crops this season threatened by drought, villagers along the shore are digging roots they call wild potatoes in the last fragments of the spiny forest. They don't replant.
In the pared down simplicity of this herding culture on the edge, I am struck by how much human energy goes into simply protecting possessions from other people. In any village family that can afford a cow or goat, one member spends all day every day playing the role of herdsman. The cattle -- the goatherd doesn't care for the animals in any way -- just guards them from other young men who, in turn, win status by stealing cattle. In town, night watchmen sleep in the entries of hotels. Market stalls sell deadbolts. Someone somehow gets taxed enough to support a military. Parasitic police officers maintain a veneer of legitimacy as guardians of the public against the bad guys. Van Damme plays in a back room video parlor that functions as a movie theater.
This dance of man against man in a self-created desert is different only in scale and naked exposure from how we live in the U.S. with our armies and watchmen and willingness to desiccate the lands that feed us. The dust swirls in the streets and sweeps across the plains and through the croplands and still, the stories that compel us are the ones about our win-lose games with each other. As much as Toliara's desert dwellers, we are like twenty people crowded into a Malagasi taxi brousse, a mini van serving as public transport, holding onto our stuff and vying for space while the bus goes off a cliff.
For millennia we humans could indulge the naïve assumption that we would win paradise by beating out nature and each other. (Our appeals to magical super-humans often were pleas for help in one of these contests. "Dear God, please make my feet swift, my arm strong, my spear sharp, my aim true.") In the childhood and adolescence of our species, we had no way of grasping the greater story except in small fragments. Nor could we comprehend our own power to destroy the very fabric of life. We were weaker then, and fewer, and nature more forgiving. Destruction happened more slowly, beyond the scope of a human lifetime; beyond the scope of collective memory.
The world-altering capacity of our ancestors is visible only in retrospect. Even in small numbers with primitive technologies, earlier humans eliminated other species -- the mammoths of the New World, the Stellar Sea Cow, Mauritius' dodo, Madagascar's elephant bird. They converted the cedar forests and farmlands of the Fertile Crescent into the deserts of Iraq, Lebanon, and the Sahara. By altering the balance of nature, they eliminated themselves in small pockets like the early settlements on Greenland and Easter Island. But only a few eccentrics noticed. For most people, slow change is no change.
It took the atomic bomb for large numbers of humans to recognize the magnitude of our destructive power. Big explosions vaporized whole islands -- and then whole cities -- in seconds, and people took notice. We are only just beginning to grasp the slow cumulative frog-in-a-pot destructive potential of our man-against-nature and man-against-man daily lives.
And yet consciousness is rising. Despite our history and our storytelling, there is a growing sense among people old and young that we cannot exist in conflict with the rest of humanity and other species. Some scientists have been clamoring desperately for generations. But now, finally, our mythologies are changing. In the West, pagan earth religions, though small, are on the rise. New Age woo has mass appeal even among intellectuals (e.g. The Secret; What the Bleep Do We Know?). Best-selling authors like Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth) promote inclusive, karmic, quasi-Buddhist spirituality and gain devoted followings. And conversations about the sacred feminine are penetrating the Christian patriarchy. (Conflict is a male-centric plot line; it is no accident of linguistics that the literary conflicts are called man against man and nature and self.)
This spring the most expensive movie of all time, Avatar, captivated tens of millions of viewers with images of a fertile planet where the interweaving of life forms was more tangible and cherished than on our own. Leaders of conflict-centered, human-centric ideologies, railed against the film. In Seattle, megachurch minister Mark Driscoll, who leads one of the most aggressive and patriarchal institutions in the city, spent a Sunday morning expounding about the evils of excessive reverence for nature. The Vatican, which brutally crushed the earth religions of the Americas, had similar complaints. Heaven forbid that their god-in-the-image-of-man, should have to compete (that's how they think of it) with something as primal and fecund and wet as the planet that gave us birth.
My point is not that all of these exploratory perspectives are reasonable ways of understanding our world, but that they all are more centered in unity and interconnectedness than the ideologies that have been dominant in the last two thousand years (and are dominant still). At the leading edge of consciousness, we are reaching for something beyond the three conflicts. We no longer claim a divine right to dominion over nature and "lesser" humans. We seek instead a way of thinking that allows humankind to live in community with each other and with the broader web of life -- a way of thinking that allows the generations of the future simply to live.
The undercurrent of collaboration and cooperation, of give and take, has been there all along. Here in Madagascar, apple sellers waiting patiently to sell their pile of ten to twenty apples each, help a "competitor" communicate her prices in French. Five rural villages team together to reserve their last patch of native forest, just twenty acres. They stop shooting the lemurs, instead guiding tourists to see them, and use the entry fees to buy fruit trees, a school, and clothes for the elderly. Cross country drivers who could put each other out of business, instead put heads together about the best lodging, warn each other about hazards, and tow each other's cars when needed. Many, many people give more than they must and take less than they could.
This, I think is the real story of our species, of our quest for Eden. And when it captures our imaginations even more than do the three conflicts, our future will look quite different.