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

NB: URGENT callout! Crowd funding campaign for CLNC film ends this Saturday 12 noon AEST. If we haven’t raised 20K by then, we don’t get funded at all! Please help this film be made!

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.

London-from-above.jpg
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.

Geoff-Berry-nature.jpg
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!

Advertisements

Mythtelling around the Campfire

After facilitating the first Belonging workshop last weekend, i want to reflect upon one of the themes that arose there: how do we find embrace technology and express our innate love of nature in the same life of body and soul? And how can we do both in an ecologically sustainable way? This is a core issue for modern people to come to terms with and it runs right through my work, including the documentary film City Living, Nature Calling (more details soon) and my mythtelling story session around the campfire in Castlemaine this Friday evening. (If you’re anywhere near there, or are coming to the Local Lives, Global Matters event, see details below)

 

shutterstock_59945146-campfire

 

Let’s start with Prometheus, the mythic character who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. He was a Titan, which generally puts him on the side of humanity against the haughty Olympian gods (Titans descend directly from mother earth, or Gaia, and father sky, or Uranus). Sometimes he is even credited with creating humanity, but mostly he is known as the same culture hero who was responsible for granting us the powers of technology. There’s the irony, because even though modern technology has become so powerful that it is now seen as a major driving force behind the destruction of the environment, it was originally created out of loyalty to the earth and its people. Obviously, the problem is not technology per se, but the ways it is used. Prometheus, in another myth, is also responsible for lifting up our chins towards the heavens, in what sounds like an evolutionary shift from primate to free standing homo sapiens. From then on, we are looking at the stars, employing some of my favourite of all human qualities: imagination and wonder, dreaming of future and further possibilities, looking beyond immediate experiences with hope and maybe even love for the universe.

Prometheus

This is the force that expands us beyond our bodies, hopefully in a way that increases our appreciation for this physical life, this embodiment of consciousness and self-aware intelligence that we are so lucky to have. There is no reason we can’t have all of this dreaming and be good ecological citizens of the earth at the same time. But in order to do so we might have to recall the Greeks’ great warning against hubris, or over-exaggerated pride. If the philosophical attitude of this culture may be summed in the oracle to Know Thyself, then obviously this ‘self’ must also be restrained by the ecological limits of its home. While the ancient Greeks were no doubt just as often warning against the excessive domination of tyrants in the polis – a social ill, rather than an environmental one – there are precedents for my intuition that there is a notion of ‘care for country’ in this mythic cycle. King Oedipus becomes aware of pollution in his land, for instance, when it is laid waste by plague.

 

Oedipus & the plague

Across the seas in ancient Britain, a similar set of circumstances besets the land as the Knights of the Round Table set off in search for the Holy Grail. There, the ill health of the king is directly associated with the suffering of the land. Metaphorically speaking, when cultural authority is weak (the king is wounded or defiled), so nature becomes barren, the land laid waste, the fruits of the forest left to rot or the desert sands dotted with corpses and crows. There is a direct association, in the Grail and Theban cycles of Kings Arthur and Oedipus, between vigorous rule and the fertility of the land. And again in both sets of stories there is a concern with just rule, with the good king, who serves his people with honour and in accord with a higher calling, a greater law, something more than mere political convention. There is a myth, or metaphysic, of interconnectedness between the way we live and the flourishing of our bioregion. Calling this the law of the land might make a nice counterpoint to the unsatisfying way Darwinian evolution has too often been reduced to a ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology that suits capitalist aggression a lot better than it suits an empathic collective of caring souls who like to cooperate towards a better world.

 

Grail wasteland

Also, this myth of culture and nature being strengthened by the same commitment to a just society also links mind and matter in a way not dissimilar to the identification with nature we recognize as a core feature of so many indigenous traditions. Where Psyche and Gaia are seen as codependent, the warning against hubris can be seen extended to become the magical formula of Hermes Trismegistus, “As Above, So Below.” This is another way of saying that what is within is without, or that our individual minds can ultimately be identified with the world, that what we see is what we are, only with a particularly human kind of reflection added. I find this way of thinking obeys the laws of both myth and reason, once the unlimited inter-relating qualities of metaphor are taken into account. And while we can imagine better worlds beyond this one, it is now our duty and pleasure to imagine a better way of living right here on this earth, amongst a community of inter-related beings dedicated to the flourishing of all. According to this logic, it makes perfect sense to act as if we are born out of the earth and must remain loyal to it, because it is mother and matrix, the ultimate ground of being; technology and all.

 

images

Geoff presents mythtelling around the campfire at Murrnong Co-Housing Community, Castlemaine, from 8pm this Friday 16th October. Bus leaves Market Building Steps, Mostyn St. Booking essential! See locallivesglobalmatters.org