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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Transformation Learning – Experience and Wisdom with Jonathan Dawson

Jonathan DawsonJonathan Dawson is Head of Economics at Schumacher College (UK) and appeared at the OASES Graduate School in Melbourne to talk about “What we are learning about transformative pedagogy: reflections on the edge” (Monday 24th August, 2015)

 

About two dozen of us sat in a wide circle to hear Jonathan speak on his experiences of 11 years at the Findhorn community and his last 4 years at legendary home of sustainability Schumacher College. Naturally this included not just listening to a lecture; in fact, we got up and enjoyed a multi-layered, space-changing exercise in the large hall as a group, as a way of shifting our minds out of that passive receptive mode so common to traditional education. This game introduced us to the way quantum fields operate in interpersonal exchanges, as each of us moved around the room in an attempt to maintain the same distance between ourselves and two other people we had chosen at random. With everyone moving to try and maintain this equidistance, we represented a room full of people in a kind of magnetic flow, of constellations that did not follow social norms of reason, kin or bonding, but which nevertheless reflected some of the ways change actually does happen amongst people (and atoms and stars). I was amongst those that felt something profound happen during this exercise; something beneath or beyond words, yet deeply meaningful.

 

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With this in mind, and in hindsight, it should not seem so surprising that Jonathan chose to begin his spoken presentation with an anecdote about the way that ‘closing circles’ inevitably bring about very strong feelings for participants in transformational learning, whether they’ve been together for a whole year or a weekend workshop. ‘Coz this is where people realise what they have gained through engaging in learning that seeks to expand our thought processes beyond what sociologist Max Weber called ‘the iron cage of reason.’ This is where learning is an experience, which opens up the heart, body and whatever we like to call our mostly intangible sense of soul or spirit. When learning experiences ask us to recalibrate the way we think, listen, communicate, reason, feel and be with others, the results can be profound. Perhaps this is the kind of educational paradigm required in an era where everything seems to be changing faster than ever even as we ‘postmodern individuals’ awaken to the fact that we are all connected, to those in our human communities as well as to the world itself.

 

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And just as global challenges require a systemic (or holistic) response, each of us are also effected at some personal level, within, in those places where we experience emotions that are too often marginalised in the ‘management’ discourse that dominates adult education today. This is why transformational pedagogies remain more relevant than ever. Because we need to feel what is happening in the world around us if we are to respond appropriately. We are intelligent, social primates who are capable of reflection upon – and most importantly behavioural change in response to – what is happening around us. Real change will not come from bringing the intellect to bear alone; realistic responses require emotional and embodied engagement, physical experiences of what is happening and what we can do about it. Sometimes this may be as seemingly impotent as allowing ourselves to weep at the realisation of how heavy the ecological footprint is of industrialised societies, an outcome Jonathan says he has witnessed countless times, even when working with corporate and other managerial workers. By circumventing the abstractions of statistics, for example, an exercise like forming groups of people on two sides of the room – one to represent the consumers of ‘resources’ and the other to represent the relatively voiceless numbers of less advantaged peoples (or the even more voiceless earth itself) – can undercut the avoidance of grief that is part of our consumer era.

 

JD at OASES bwJonathan sets us up as consumers and ‘resources’ (Photo courtesy Ben Wrigley)

 

Naturally there is a strong element of phenomenology involved in such exercises and Jonathan mentioned how applying such philosophies in experiential educational contexts can allow participants to revalue personal, lived senses of justice and to dissolve some of our often uncritically accepted loyalties to dominant paradigms of reductionist meaning. He discussed how language can reduce a living subject, such as a tree, to a category box. We look, we define it as ‘just a tree,’ and we move on. This process doesn’t allow for the living being to be appreciated and makes it easier for us to accept that it could be treated as simply a ‘resource’ – something we can use at will and not care about any further. Transformative education asks us to rethink this process; to slow down and appreciate the tree as a fellow subject, another living being, who has the same right to be exactly as it is, where it is, as we do.

 

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I took the opportunity in a personal conversation with Jonathan at a later date to point out that I think arguments like the one by David Abrams, which claim that the written language has a kind of soul-destroying nature, may actually be aimed at the wrong suspect. From what I learnt of the agricultural revolution, especially in and around the Mesopotamian region around 8-10 millennia ago, which so strongly influenced the Levantine and southern European civilizations that followed it, written codes followed physical practices a long time later. The written alphabet did not create or even pre-empt a way of thinking that treated the world around the Sumerians as a set of resources rather than as a system of inter-related kin. This transformation, which many ecologically-minded people today find so troubling, occurred in the mind of oral peoples. The agricultural habit of treating the world as a set of resources was invented, developed and carried out for thousands of years before it was ever written down. If we want to find fault, it is with the dangerous creativity of humanity, combined with the temptation of a more managed system that could ensure consistently higher yields. Here is the beginning of capitalism and today’s worship of profit: in the availability of domesticable crops and animals, put to the service of humanity, until the plants and creatures themselves are thought of as chattels, things we own and control, rather than beings with whom we share kinship relations, lives we care for. When we consider indigenous epistemologies and what they have to offer to a 21st century, ecological way of living in the world, this is one of the main facets we must appreciate. Many pre-industrial cultures retain important aspects of pre-agricultural respect for all life and this extends our understanding of kinship and intrinsic rights to those beings, including even the inanimate world beneath our feet, in the rivers and seas, in the air we breathe.

In the circle at OASES, Jonathan also introduced ways to engage with what he called our ‘digital commons’ in the shift towards cooperative, communal learning. On the one hand, electronic and digital media are a great way to gather people together; but on the other, we need to connect with each other beyond the simplified set of senses this mode too often engages. Staring at the backlit screen is entirely visual, with a little tactile manipulation thrown in as we type or swipe. As already discussed, we need to add embodied, spatial skills (as well as the aural practice of deep listening, the symbolic capacity engendered with reflection, the self-trust that comes with feelings of intuition, and more) if we are to reforge the commonalities that bind us together with each other and the earth. One of the ideas that emerged out of this conversation was to ask appropriate questions, to take people from the screen to the event by piquing their curiosity, and to remember to have fun doing so. A morbid movement is one destined to collapse under the weight of its own ponderous fragility and grief; while these things have their place, they do not inspire people to act unless they are counterbalanced with the promise also of pleasurable interaction, wonderful storytelling, and convivial atmospheres. (And yes, we all laughed together that day at OASES.)

 

Joanna Macy quoteA venerable ally, Joanna Macy – saying something i love reminding myself and anyone else about …

 

Finally, Jonathan reminded us to switch the default position of transformational learning back to how people would learn if given the opportunity to share openly in community and thereby to experience themselves as self-aware bodies in relationship with others and the earth. We are primate beings, who evolved in relatively small bands of kin and who are hard-wired for compassion and generosity, given the conditions for these qualities to flourish. Nowadays, conditions favour a different kind of person and this has been developing since the agricultural revolution. We inherit so many bad habits – of reducing other lives to objects of profit and of thinking of ourselves first – that it takes time to dissolve them in experiences of shared support and a community of souls. This is what transformational education can offer today: learning experiences that are fully alive in mind and body – and that remind us we are also, as well, more-than-human and not less.