Saturday, 4 October 2014

Navigating the neighborhood – an exercise in natural humility

One of the challenges in my current course in Ecopsychology is to examine and develope what I see as the connection between me and the rest of the world. Do I see myself as part of nature? And how does that relationship work and can it be developed?

In many ways I like to think that I understand that I am part of nature, that I interconnect with other living things, and have a relationship with them. I know I cannot exist outside of an ecosystem that produces food and clean water through all its intricate relationships. With the evidence I have available, I try to consider the impact of my decisions on other humans, animals, fish, plants, ecosystems and even some micro organisms (gotta love compost) before eating and buying things. In some ways I would call it mindfulness, as I try and be mindful of how my actions impact other people and creatures. I did think this, until I tried an exercise in one of the texts I am using.

I one of my last blogs, I talked of Brian Swimme’s book on cosmology. Brian, apparently, is having none of this guff about really living as a part of nature, as he made the seemingly simple suggestion that I ask a friend to come to my place from another place around 20 miles away. I was to give directions on how to get here. There was a catch, though. I could not use any object that was constructed by human beings. My directions had to use only the natural topography.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even give directions from a few kilometres away. I realised my knowledge of natural formations, other than whopping great mountains, exposed bluffs on the cliff sides or overly large and unusually shaped trees, was painfully absent. I didn’t even know where to begin. This made me understand that I actually have very little knowledge at all when it comes to my natural surroundings. Heavens, most of us can’t even use human-made topography now, relying on Google maps and satellite navigation to get us from point A to B.

This sort of exercise really does mess with my head. I think all of us who have the will can use various meditative techniques or connection with place to feel “tuned in” to our natural environment and to feel a connection with other living things. But how much a part of nature am I, and how aware am I really of the natural environment if I can’t even describe what it consists of outside of the confines of my backyard?
Humanity has irrevocably changed the landscape in urban and even in many rural areas. I now doubt that there are even any truly wild, pristine areas left on our planet. This exercise forced me to confront the fact that I am completely dependent on a myriad of human-made things to go about my daily life, and it is doubtful if I could exist without them. I can’t ‘read’ the landscape around me, and I certainly can’t describe it well enough to get someone from point A to B. I felt like an alien in an artificially constructed world. When he read the challenge, my husband also reported feeling completely inadequate, expressing the opinion that in urban areas we have basically obliterated the natural phenomena.

Of course I am part of the great web of life that is the living system we refer to as planet Earth. Everything is. But I am really feeling just how estranged I am from the great natural cycles and interactions of life on earth. No matter how carefully and mindfully I think I might be living as an aware Western person, the truth is my life is sustained by incremental destruction of living things and living systems, and by entrenched in justice to the poor.

I am very good at feeling terribly guilty about things I have done or haven’t done. This is has also made me guilty and despairing all at once. By an accident of time and geography, I have been born into an epoch that is seeing humanity change the climate of the planet and causing large scale environmental destruction in order that civilised, mainly Western people can have a lifestyle that is comfortable, and distanced off from nature as much as possible. And most of us do not even know that is what we are doing.
Ecopsychology proposes that our health, our identity, and even our sanity, is intimately linked to the health of the planet. A number of its proponents actively suggest that this must include sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the living world. It seeks to encourage a new understanding of the human-nature relationship. It believes if we can resolve the guilt, renew the links between us and other life in mindful ways, it will lead to us living in more sustainable ways.

I am just not sure what I think of this right now after failing to even describe where I live. I feel more helpless in many ways, despite trying to make a difference in the way I live. While it may be true that healing ourselves and adopting practices to get us back in touch with our natural sides will lead to better treatment of the environment, the chances of entire populations adopting such practices seems remote right now.

So where to from here?

One of my textbooks takes on this challenge head-on. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone talk of Active Hope in their book of the same name. Active Hope is presented as one way of addressing over-consumerism of our lifestyles and the environmental problems facing the planet. They believe that by building on our strengths, interests and skills, we can generate “our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability” (2012, p.4) and develop a spiritual connectedness with all life. They believe that we all have the capacity to emerge as Shambhala warriors, harbingers of an emerging kingdom of the mind where people of courage will enter the halls of power to dismantle the destructive weapons used to lay waste to the world. The two things that characterise these warriors are their compassion, and their insight into the interdependence of all things.

Perhaps that is what we are seeing with the various sit-ins and protests that have been generated by the common people or the 99%. Perhaps as the consequences of climate change become devastating enough that even sceptics can’t ignore them, the tide will turn.

Throughout history, powerful vested interests have been successfully challenged by people of courage and compassion, such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Ghandi. Is it still possible to dare to believe in a vision where we radically change our lifestyles, stop burning coal, develop renewable energy and really begin to nurture and cherish our Earth?

If we want to survive as a species, and preserve much of the life that supports us, we do need to challenge the business as usual model of governments and corporations and economists. We do need to be more mindful of what we are doing, and of our privileged lifestyles that require so many resources to support them. As well as living more simply, perhaps we also need to start some simple conversations around the issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and the threat we are posing to ourselves by eradicating species and habitat. It occurs to me that my own mind is just as likely to hold me back as political parties or the power of coal barons are. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I suspect he is right. The barriers to action in my mind are as great as those that guard the people in power in our corporations and parliaments.

If I was freed from fear and doubt, what difference would it make? Johnstone and Macy suggest we start with our own personal contexts and lifestyle, then move to the context of those around us, then to our societies and culture, and finally, the context of our connectedness with all life.

I may not be able to navigate via natural phenomena, but I can do something about my own lifestyle. And that is the challenge I am grappling with at the moment.

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