City Living, Nature Calling: Biophilia as the new (old) story

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City Living, Nature Calling: Biophilia as the new (old) story

When E. O. Wilson made the term ‘biophilia’ famous, he articulated something deeply rooted in human consciousness: an innate love of home, the places we live and the other forms of life we share this beautiful planet with. In our age of increasing environmental destruction, this sense of love for the earth must equate not only to local places but to the entire planet. Let’s tap into this deep ecological stream, which underscores even the most urbanized consciousness eventually, as a way of shifting more smoothly towards the climate change adaptation that we can now see is inevitable.

The love of life Wilson discussed sits well with the ‘new story’ being told by cosmologists like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, ecological therapists and activists like Joanna Macy and John Seed, and many more. Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh also asks us to recognize our ultimate interdependence with the other beings of the earth. And even earth systems scientists now remind us that our survival as a species is imperilled without a healthy environment, filled with flourishing biodiversity, fresh air and water, good soils and renewable energy sources. So the big question for the 21st century is – how do we transform modern society in line with ecological limit; call upon our deep reserves of love; face and move through our grief at what we are doing to the earth; and dismantle the infrastructure of damaging industries all at the same time, without falling prey to becoming disheartened?

I want to deal with this seemingly enormous task by asking this question from a particular perspective, which may seem ironic at first: what would we think about the way we live if we looked down at our cities from space? On the one hand, this is the most disembodied and abstract way of looking at humanity imaginable; but on the other, it allows us to see the modern urban way of life as if from the outside. Perhaps by being removed from our everyday assumptions in this way, we may be able to learn something new and helpful about ourselves.

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What I learnt from trying this uniquely modern meditation was that our urban environments tell a story about humanity and its place on earth; a story about large-scale civilization and how it fits into the planet’s ecology. And one of the first things we notice about the city when we set ourselves outside of and above it is that it works in grids. Instantly we realize some things about the ways we are socialized – to accept grids of streets as a normal way of life, along with the tall squares of buildings lit at night, the traffic that lines the streets, the constant buzz of commerce … all of these things come to seem natural to us in the modern city. After only eight millennia or so since it began – a drop in the ocean of evolutionary time – the city now has its own sets of rules and in fact has become a new natural environment. We modern people have learnt those rules very well; we adapt well to living in grids, in buildings, with artificial lighting, using technologies driven by the fossil fuels of the machine age and taking for granted all the other seemingly natural aspects of modern urban life. And there is a name for the kind of story that tells you that the way you live is natural. That kind of story is called a myth.

As Roland Barthes pointed out in Mythologies, myth is a story so powerful it removes us from history. Joseph Campbell would agree that this is one of its unique qualities – that myth returns us to one of our other natural homes, in our sense of the timeless. As virtually all religious commentators and many philosophers have averred, we humans sense that the phenomenal world is underpinned by something more. This may be a dimension of eternal creative power out of which the universe arises and back to which it returns; it may be imagined as an eternal feminine matrix or womb of life; it may be a void or fount, beyond phenomena or within it. Reconnecting us to this unlimited source has always been a core aim of myth and finding new versions of this ancient and ongoing experience is central to the ‘new story’ of a flourishing earth for all life.

But Barthes also wanted to point out the negative aspect of this function; for him, myth could also be utilized, for example, to advertise consumer products and justify wars. Either way, as Campbell agrees, a myth is a powerful story that convinces us that it is true. Now I think it is time for us to look at our modern way of living and recognize its mythic aspect. For me this turn has a real urgency, because the stale myth of endless economic growth now imperils the very habitat of the planet. This old story needs to be transformed to a new myth – one informed by humanity’s inherent biophilia, considered in both local and global contexts.

The new myth of ecological identity is also, of course, the oldest myth around. Humanity spent most of its evolution absolutely at home in nature, living in very close contact with the elements, the other animals, the soil and rivers and trees and mountains. It makes sense that the deepest layers of our psyches identify with the natural world, with animal and other totemic powers and the like. It is only very recently, in evolutionary terms, that we have learned the new environment of the city, with its new sets of rules. And there’s the rub: because while we retain a deep-seated loyalty to the natural environment, we have transferred much of our everyday loyalties to the new natural environment of the city. This way of life exacerbates the environmental crisis, because the cities draw up energy from everywhere around them, and we have not noticed this enough.

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Extricating ourselves from everyday life for a while, to consider the cities from space, we may see things more clearly. We notice more immediately, for instance, that for our power we draw on fossil fuels from other places; that for our food, we rely upon huge agricultural tracts laid out in the same grids that we recognise from our towns; that in order to draw constant fresh water, rivers have been dammed. In fact, it is according to an urban logic that most non-urban land is designed today. The desires of urban society extend far beyond city limits, to order the world according to a seemingly unending appetite; and this is what brings us to the precipice of the ecological crisis today. Because this way of life not only pushes the planet beyond its carrying capacity; it concurrently disables our capacity for feeling at home in the natural, or non-human world.

The agricultural revolution resulted in large-scale urban developments based on a shift in the way people considered the world around them – what was once a set of subjects in communion, as Thomas Berry so eloquently put it, became a set of objects, or rather resources, for our use. With the inventions of the industrial revolution just centuries ago, magnified by the rise of fossil fuel use, technologically developed humanity quickly convinced itself it was independent of nature.

The ancient Greeks would have called this hubris, or unreasonable pride, and would have looked for a warning in close proximity with the signs of such arrogance. The ancient myths continue to speak truth. And now with the climate talks in Paris, we need the decision makers of the polis – the leaders of the major urban societies, which have been responsible for most of the ecological damage enacted upon the earth over recent centuries – to stand for real change. We need the old myth of perpetual economic growth to be transformed to a new myth of ecological being. To do this we need to trust our experiences as modern peoples and look to our great traditions; we need to combine climate science with indigenous wisdom and earthy farming inventions such as permaculture, which works with and not against the cycles of nature.

It is time for us to remember that we do know how to live at one with nature. We have always known how to do this. We might have forgotten for a while and allowed technology to convince us that we can be free of the limits of nature; but reality reminds us that we have to deal with limit – both as people, as individuals, and as a society, as a global civilization. Let’s continue to explore ways of rekindling the fires of culture; of transforming modern civilization and indeed human consciousness, in alignment with that deep ancestral knowing that we love our home. Then we can transform modern society and ourselves as people, as members of an ecological community and a better world.

My ‘ecomythic’ documentary film City Living, Nature Calling intends to do this and I hope you will enjoy the trailer and support the crowdfunding campaign here.

Dr. Geoff Berry, Researcher, Writer & Presenter
City Living, Nature Calling – an ecological documentary like no other!

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City Living, Nature Calling – an ecomythic film for our times

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 What better way to support the new myth, the ‘big story’ that is growing within and around us in response to our need to treat the earth better, than to make a film. Film is the great myth-making machine of the modern era. And when impactful visuals are combined with convincing narration, documentary film can help change the world. This is what is intended for City Living, Nature Calling, an ecologically inspired documentary film that shows how modern societies can be adapted to meet the challenges of climate change and bring more balance to human/ecosystem relations.

City Living, Nature Calling is an ecomythic documentary, a story for our times that points out that the dominant myth of the modern world has been one that promised technological abundance for all. Nowadays we know that this is a convenient fiction and our hearts, minds, bodies and souls draw us on to the next grand vision of life in balance, of flourishing life for all on this beautiful planet. This doco draws upon our innate care for our home, wherever we live, even when our ‘natural environment’ has become a landscape of city grids, motorized traffic and credit cards, tall buildings lit at night and bustling pedestrians on mobile phones. City Living, Nature Calling offers answers to the ‘big story’ of modern society by looking first at how we got here and then at how technology can work hand-in-hand with respect for nature to heal our wounded world.

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City Living, Nature Calling opens with a story about how humanity evolved, over countless millennia, in close contact with wild nature, before so many of us moved into cities with the rise of civilization. The doco shows how the current ecological crisis is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the human race now live in urban environments, which now dominate the planet and its ecology, drawing energy and resources up from the planet around them. It points out we all love our home to some extent, but that transferring our loyalties from the countryside to the city leaves us alienated from our ancestral place in nature. The ‘big picture’ that this film presents is that we need to relearn how to fit in with the cycles and limits of nature rather than assuming that our advanced technologies will continue to provide us with abundance.

Author and narrator Dr Geoffrey Berry draws on his academic research into the mythic history of civilization from an ecologically-informed perspective. So rather than presenting a merely materialistic account about the benefits and dangers of technology, his work also investigates the timelessly shifting mysteries of symbolic stories and their relationship to human consciousness. Geoff asks questions like: how do we think and behave in terms of the kind of environment we grow up in? And what effect do our technologies have upon our attitudes and feelings (and vice versa)? These questions led him to uncover the mythic substrata of human consciousness and the way great symbolic narratives motivate human behavior according to certain historical and environmental contexts.

City Lights at Night - a Planetary Perspective

      How we love to light our cities at night …

Geoff’s ecomythic presentation in City Living, Nature Calling aims to motivate mainstream populations towards ecological adaptation by reminding us that the home we love includes city and country, in a wider sense of biodiversity. But just as importantly, the doco also discusses the modern myths that are holding us back from the rapid and systemic transformation required of us today. Geoff’s research into myth and symbol taught him that these powerful stories and images convince us that the way we live is natural and ‘true,’ as if they (and therefore we) are aligned with some greater reality beyond the material world. His work led him to the discovery that we still live by a dominant myth, a dangerous misconception that is now being dismantled by environmental science and our collective recognition that we cannot continue exploiting the world forever.

The ‘dominant myth’ that Geoff uncovers in modern society is that we can endlessly consume the earth’s resources as if they were unlimited; it is an ‘eternal feast’ in our modern cities of light. This vision implies that we have overcome the vagaries of seasonal cycles, which afflicted traditional societies with famine (as well as providing feast). We know such afflictions still threaten us, but somehow the imagery of modern consumption works to avert our eyes from this reality and draws us instead to constantly dream of the glowing treasure available at the end of the shopping aisle. For more on how this kind of dreaming can be adapted to the limits of nature, please see the film trailer and crowd funding campaign at www.startsomegood.com/clnc

Geoff headshot Belonging

Following a successful funding campaign, Geoff and film maker Darcy Gladwin will head out to ask experts in fields such as climate science, renewable power, permaculture design and urban development how we can adapt better to ecological limit, right now. Geoff also aims to interview other kinds of influential voices such as Aboriginal elders and politicians. This footage will then be interspersed with visually poetic reflections on the big questions of our times. Join the many of us already on board the City Living, Nature Calling movement!

 

 

Belonging to the Earth – Deepening that Feeling

Geoff headshot Belonging

While we are working on feeling more at home in our skin and strengthening our sense of community, we are already deepening the sense in which we belong to the earth community. But we can go way further than this, by opening our minds (or soul, or psyche) to the intelligence of the earth itself. You know the saying, that indigenous peoples believe that the earth doesn’t belong to them, but they belong to the earth? Let’s drop into that one, as modern people, together. This can be done with a change of consciousness, the kind you may have felt listening to great music, while dancing, or during any exercise where you felt transported to another place. This is the spirit of Dionysus, who guides us to dissolve the ‘iron cage of reason’ (as sociologist Max Weber called it) so that we can enjoy the sense of freedom traditionally available to all members of society in ritual or other celebrations. Sure, we know how to celebrate modern life – and yes, sex & drugs & rock ‘n roll count as valid expressions of the Dionysian too – but we don’t get enough opportunity to do so within the context of the sacred, where deep meaning dances with intoxicating experience.

To do this, we need to balance the rational with the irrational, the ‘logos’ of everyday consciousness with the ‘mythos’ of the more-than-human world, the calculations of the ego with the archetypal (and humbling) realm of spiritual intelligence. This is where both sides of the mind converse, because there is a logic to myth (once its symbolism can be interpreted), just as there is a mythic aspect to our ‘reasonable,’ everyday lives. In the metaphor used by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Apollo was the god of form, who guided the ‘reasonable’ side of our minds, while Dionysus was the god of frenzy, of unreasonable pleasure such as we might experience while lost to the dance. Both lend us great qualities, but too much measure and logic leads to a frozen heart, while too much partying leads to … well, you know about hangovers and addiction and failing to realize our potential because we got lost in too much intoxication. The trick is to let each inform the other, until we no longer need to differentiate between them: the ‘rational’ is energized by the ‘mythic,’ while the irrational, uncontrollable realm of the dreaming has some measure and meaning brought to it by our human concerns.

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For example, consider this:
My experience of the rainbow serpent rising out of the Yarra River, teaching me how to get more grounded in my work so that I can withstand the pressures of everyday society better, has a certain logic to it. The fresh water of the river cuts through the earth as it travels along the clay pans near my home, just as aspects of our emotional life cut through our bodies. There is an elemental parallel that makes sense: water is a metaphor for feeling and the earth is like our body, the ground of experience. Symbolically, the river brings healing; it refreshes me in mind and heart and body for new growth, just as rivers always do in reality. The logic of this ‘ecomythic’ vision (yeah, I’ve just coined a new thing) can bring another dimension to our everyday lives, where suffering is suffused with meaning and painful wounds open us to more-than-human possibilities, like being visited by archetypal or ancestral spirits with powerful medicinal properties.

Participants in a Belonging Workshop are led in experiential exercises that work with this kind of ecomythic material, to heal wounds, to evoke warrior spirit, to stand tall in our human selves and in our sense of the eternal flow of life that nourishes all things without limit.

If you can’t make it along, try this simple practice at home:

Meditate on your inner wound, while invoking it as an opportunity to open you to more-than-human powers, archetypal wisdom and the ancestral spirits of the land. Finding the logic of mythos draws the deep healing and energizing power of the more-than-human into your body, your mind, your heart and your soul. In Zen we call this opening a dharma gate and I will sign off as does my favourite old master, Yun Men: Take care.

Belonging in Community – Workshop Experiential

Reflecting on what makes people feel they really belong to a place, so that they treat it well and care for the way it flourishes, a sense of belonging to their community comes high on the list. If alienation has negative effects on people’s inner, personal lives (as discussed here), it is even more damaging in terms of our relationships with each other. More people live in cities now than ever before; more people live alone now than ever before; and more people report suffering from mental health issues associated with feeling alone and being cast aside by an unfeeling society than ever before. The link is lack of community; someone to check in on you if they sense you feeling down; someone to lend a hand when you are struggling, as well as celebrate your victories; someone to talk to about whatever is happening. What has too often gone missing is a range of people who actually care. And this works, in an ecosystemic sense, because those people know that if something is wrong with one member of a community it will spread to others; and that all of us are involved with each other, in the end.

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American writer on the ecological spirituality of Mayan village life, Martin Prechtel, claimed once that communal life is over when people don’t have to get together to help mend each other’s roofs. With tin or cement tiles over our heads, we don’t have to care about the home next door; if we both relied upon thatch, which had to be renewed each season, we’d be forced to remain on better terms. And And Martin Shaw, resident myth teller at Schumacher College in Devon, England, and leader of wilderness retreats designed to get participants back in touch with the powers of nature, points out that community also includes ancestors past and elders present, those that touched our hearts and minds, whether they be ancient sages or rock stars, poets or cranky neighbours. Electronic social media today presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to tap into a ‘community of souls,’ no matter what we are into. Not only can we choose friends from a local group nowadays, but we can link up with those who share our interests anywhere in the world. And sharing tales around a campfire in suburban Thornbury the other night, I once again heard people tell of their ‘longing for belonging’ and an associated yearning to connect more deeply with others; in other words, to grow community.

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This leads me to the next aspect of the Belonging workshop; grounding ourselves in each other’s company, in a way that consolidates the ecomythic aspect of our relationships as part of a sacred earth community. This experiential combines deep listening with ‘story stick’ telling, as each of us is given space to share with the group our most cherished hopes for community, so that – at least for those few hours and in the way we carry them onwards in our hearts – we do in fact form that community of deep listening and allow it to inform our souls. When it is consolidated with reflections from the mythic realm, this sharing of care can become a rich response to our yearning for a community that sustains soul. Ecomythic belonging nourishes us beyond our personal cares and even beyond human bias. It replaces us in a biodiverse ecosystem of physical and symbolic beings and more-than-human powers.

 

The author of White Fella Dreaming, Dr Geoffrey Berry, presents Belonging workshops that work across three levels; the personal, communal, and ecomythic aspects of feeling more deeply at home on earth. The first is to be held at CERES Environmental Park in Brunswick East on Saturday 10th October. For more information visit belonging.org.au/news and you can book here.