nature and culture

The S-word. It’s become so dominant and overused in green, business and societal discourse that it has become emptied of meaning.

This elusive word is used all the time now, (nearly as much as eco-everything) especially by green-washing corporate PR machines, as well as, disappointedly, the green movement(s). It drives me crazy.

Corporations, with varying degrees of authenticity and intent, aim to incorporate social, economic and environmental matters into their business. Green groups enter into dialogue with business to bring about “sustainability”.

So there seems to be a broad consensus that sustainability, even if the word has multiple, contested and conflicted meanings, is a good thing; good for the planet, good for our grandchildren, good for corporate growth. This broad consensus can be dangerous.

The “sustainability movement” has created an apolitical construct that is seemingly best developed by technical, scientific and managerial elites, who fly at 10,000 metres from conference to conference, exhibiting naïve optimism that they can manage earth’s complex systems.

For many, sustainability is about creating a (mystical?) future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Sounds so simple. As if such there was an old-age, or future-age balance, that can be restored or achieved. Our defence of a so-called “fragile nature” seems to occur mainly through the tortuous (and dare I say largely ineffective) process of national and global policymaking.

Is there something wrong here? I think so.

Sustainability has been dumbed down, in spite (or because) of the abundance of sustainability consultants, reports and conferences. It has been emptied of the hard work and messiness of creating “sustainable” communities on the ground, at a particular place. It has been emptied of the need to understand the politics of how our world became “unsustainable”. It has brushed aside questions of power, hegemony and inequality. It reinforces the notion of nature as a collection of resources for human use and appropriation.

Sustainability is applied as a band-aid, a cure-all, a slogan that can be applied to almost everything. It has become bland, globalising and homogenising and failed to deliver the particulars (the nitty gritty) involved in a transition to a more “sustainable” world.

Sustainability, as a concept, and even as a practice, seems blind to the needs of nature itself. Its human-centredness disappears the crucial support provided by nature and creates the idea that human cleverness can supply all the things we need. Indeed, the idea of natural systems having autonomous rights of existence and their own agency is left almost totally undiscussed.

One reason why mainstream sustainability is so compelling is that it seems to fit well into existing structures of power. It seems obvious to me that without a radical restructuring of our present systems they can never become sustainable, irrespective of the gains from material and energetic efficiencies. Any sustainability movement must, by definition, be a radical challenge to the existing system.

The tragedy continues to unfold as ecological, social and economic systems degrade further and further. Inequality, hunger, dispossession, the degradation of living systems, continues unabated, some 25 years after sustainability entered mainstream thinking.

“The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones …”

The evil of the age of excess, of empire and domination, and even of “sustainability” will, to the detriment of our descendants and other species, live on.

The good intentions of sustainability will be interred along with all the glossy sustainability reports and conference proceedings.

Et tu, sustainability?

(With apologies to Shakespeare. Quotation from Julius Caesar.)

The story of the modern “self” is that we are in possession of our own life, that we can construct our life according to our inner desires and plans. We believe we are autonomous beings, in control of our life, that we are a project to be worked on, to be improved. We aim to get more out of life, make the most of it (= busyness). These are very strange ideas when we acknowledge that we already are the full expression of life itself.

We spend so much time and money constructing “our life”, we can forget that we are here to live! We don’t have to invent anything or do too much; we just simply have to engage with the richness that already exists in us and all around us. But we can’t seem to stay still. At the heart of the modern self is an incredible restlessness, a seemingly insatiable need for mobility, for linear progress, and with so much movement, the place we live is always being blurred.

Freya Mathews says that: “modernity has foregrounded our individual deeds … as if we exist on a stage, and life is the telling of a self-story”. There is another richer ecological construction of the self: we are a unique aspect of the unfolding world. The living world is not a backdrop to our busy lives, but our existential matrix. And if we move too far from our own supporting matrix, our life can become devoid of real meaning.

Freya argues that rather than being in “possession of our life”, we should opt for a more ecological perspective, and become “native”, ie belong to a particular place and become imbued with its character. She adds: “one’s life is not the property of one’s self … (rather), to be alive is to be in the world, to witness it, engage with it, participate in its poetics.” I really resonate with that: I just want to be native to my place (Kangaroo Valley, NSW), such that my life follows the contours and flavours of the “givenness” of my land, and not some abstract, self-constructed idea of who I am.

The world around has its own fullness; full of other species, vibrant places, and meaningful conversations (if we listen). And we can engage with and be open to the bigger story of our place, situating ourselves as one member of a very large and diverse community, and find real meaning and connection right there. This can happen whether we are in “nature” or in the city. We can gaze at the clouds moving across the sky, or sit in our garden or balconies and be in conversation with all that is happening right in front of our eyes. We can abide in the place we live, no matter where it is. Anything more than that could be considered to be superfluous.

We can get most out of life through being aware of the beauty, vastness and richness of the world around us, even in its despairing brokenness.

Food. It’s the basis of life. But it’s much more than that now. The modern food system is a complex of interlocking parts including energy (especially oil), transport, chemicals, economics, big corporations, supermarkets, land tenure and ownership, markets, deforestation, monocultures. And huge subsidies.  All of this is combined with the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional aspects of nature. It wasn’t always this complicated – it used to be the stuff growing outside our doors.

I was digging up some potatoes, planted some months ago, and marveled at the simplicity of growing potatoes. Dig a hole, put in the seed potato, cover with straw, add more straw. And wait. Pretty easy really. Of course, there were lots of things going on, above and below ground, seen and unseen, and over which I had little or no control, things making their own special contributions to the development of these tasty little tubers. Sunshine. Water. Soil organisms. Worms. Especially worms.

Growing food – such a radical practice these days. In Australia, two companies (Coles and Woolworths) control over 45% of fruit and vegetables sold. Most people rely heavily on supermarkets to provide their fresh food. What do we really know about this food? How is it produced? Where did it come from? How much land and animal abuse was involved? Is it safe to eat?

Patrick Jones has stated this about food: “Few people know that the central ingredient in mass-produced transported food is crude oil, and therefore few people realise that a large part of the carbon problem we face today is our reliance on supermarkets and fast food outlets.” For more on this see – The Oil we Eat.

I step outside my front door, pick a few sage leaves, place them in some oil slightly smoking on the stove, add the freshly dug potatoes, and serve them with a pinch of salt, freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. On the side, a collection of green leaves from the garden, some six different types (rocket, lettuce x 3, nasturtium, sorrel). Simply yum. Footprint: maybe 30 of them, largely barefoot!

There seems to be something really wrong with our food system. Modern industrial agriculture is one of the most damaging activities on the planet. Damaging to land, to other species, to the atmosphere, to social systems, to our health. And it is so extremely wasteful of resources.

And it lacks ethics: There are 800 million people in the world who are hungry without adequate access to food, with a similar number overweight and obese. Why do we allow this to happen? How will this change?

My orchard is producing fruit at last, after five years. My first nashi pear with the taste of sunshine, unsurpassed in goodness and freshness. My first figs, so fresh and delightful. Grown through the patient tending of trees – watering, mulching and manuring. Slow food. Beautiful food. In the near future, perhaps I can just rely on my own food, supplemented by locally grown food, and maybe never, ever visit a supermarket again. What a joy that would be!

Erika Allen from Growing Power, says: “Urban farming is key in the reclamation of an Earth and ecology-based value system, and it plays an important role: We need urban food production, communities growing food in an urban environment.”.

The practice of growing your own food is perhaps the most thoughtful and educative nature-based practice for today. As Permaculture teacher, Geoff Lawton says: “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”.

Our lives are very precious. But our hold on life seems precarious, especially in these times of troubles. There have always been troubles, of course, but they seem more dominant and larger recently.

Recent events such as the floods in Queensland, Australia, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and the Philippines have caused waves of destruction, and many lives have been lost. The great forces of nature can be capricious.

To understand life as precarious means accepting that the life we have may be taken away at any moment. To understand our very existence is precarious means that we accept that humans are animals positioned in the food chain – that we can be food for others, be they large carnivores, or bacteria.

It means accepting we are not masters of a tamed and malleable nature. It means accepting our ecological vulnerability – we are vulnerable to so many things, from a tick to a tsunami, from a carnivore to a car crash.

And in the current dislocated world of emergent crises, it seems our lives have never been more vulnerable.

And then I wonder: How do we respond to our vulnerability? What actions do we take?

The modern world seems to harbour notions that we stand outside of nature – that we are not embedded in an ecology. (Surely the recent natural disasters show the folly of this?) We seem to hold to the illusion that humans are invulnerable, with our magnificent creations, our cities, our technologies. But what if all of this, all of this human inventiveness and cleverness, is making us even more vulnerable, making our lives, and especially the lives of the poor, even more precarious?

How do we take corrective measures to a system that allows economic privilege and the short-sightedness of the economic sphere to overwhelm the ecological realities in which we all live?

Val Plumwood, the late Australian philosopher, stated it this way: Our ethical and spiritual failures are closely linked to our perceptual and prudential failures in situating ourselves as ecological beings.

As ecological realities start to bite hard, it is time to reassess our lives and our relationship to nature, and become sensitive to ecological limits and dependencies. In doing this we become even more aware of our precarious and precious lives.

What exactly is this thing called nature? “Saving (protecting) nature” is the cliché used by many, but what exactly is it that we are trying to “save”, and, importantly, who are we saving it from, and for whom are we saving it? Is it an it? Or is it a complex mosaic of creatures, places, energies, and elements all emerging, flourishing and decaying in their own unique way? Is it nature or natures?

There are many ways in which the word nature is constructed. It is a “resource”, (something for us to exploit), a playground where one can test one’s strengths and survival abilities (wilderness), as a place of scientific enquiry and the domain of “laws”, a source of medicines (and more recently property rights), a place that provides “environmental services”, places defined by the absence of human impact, and probably in many other utilitarian and not so useful ways. One thing in common in all these constructions is the way they are so human-centred.

Many approaches to nature conservation require that humans be separated from it – so we have “protected areas”, “nature reserves” etc – places where human impact is supposed to be minimal, as a result of the area being artificially enclosed by lines on a map. Our task is to then “manage” (whatever that means) this defenceless thing . But nature may be more resilient that we think, and indeed may even be capable of defending itself!

There’s nothing wrong with separating places from destructive human impact, but it’s not a long-term solution, as nowhere is protected or safe under the current exploitative system. It also encourages a view that we (culture) are radically separate from nature.
Many of these views of nature must seem strange indeed to those who live alongside (or within) nature and are trying to derive a living from the land. Perhaps this explains why farmers, native peoples, and those who live closest to nature, (often portrayed as inferior to those (city folk) who have the greatest distance from nature), have so many problems in understanding romantic urban “greenies”.

The strangest construction of nature, and perhaps the most dangerous to our humanity’s precarious existence, is when nature is seen as an inferior other in stark contrast to the domain of culture. This construction allows us to background and dominate nature without remorse.

There are much more beautiful, much more poetic, ways to view nature: Nature as our home, the ground that supports us. Nature as that which nurtures and sustains our lives. Nature as the magic and mysterious other on which all life depends. Nature that contains place-based stories and wisdom. Nature as revelatory. Nature as enchanting. If we have the capacity to listen, nature is a communicative subject that speaks to us. It can anchor our lives.

Perhaps we need to kill off some of the definitions of nature that obscure our radical dependence on it for our very existence. And kill off definitions that situate us as something other than nature, or necessarily separate from it.

Nature is the beauty that births us. It is the place under our feet and the sky above. It cannot be contained by any definition or construct.

It is, in the final dramatic act, the place we return to.

The underlying assumption of the modern world seems to be that the future will be a continuation of the past – only brighter, better, with even better technology, more virtual, faster, 3D and more of everything. For some, it’s enticing. For others, it’s despairing; we become increasingly detached from the living world as we give our attention, time and energy to the cyber realm.

There is no doubt in my mind that the world around us, the world that nurtures and supports us is under severe threat on a number of fronts.

We do what we want with the world – a human centred cosmology. We do this because we believe the world around us is there for us (humans) to mine, cut, eat, burn, poison and trash. We have a cosmology based on a utilitarian ethic, one assuming that the world itself does not have a voice, is not alive, or if it is alive, that our human lives are more important.

At some point in our recent history, our species went from respecting nature to destroying it. We need a new cosmology.

David Abram’s new book Becoming Animal is subtitled An Earthly Cosmology. It starts: “Owning up to being an animal, a creature of the earth. Turning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten gray sky … Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.”

Dominant cosmologies (both monotheistic religions and “new-age” spiritualities and others) often place us above and beyond nature. We think of the world around us as a derivative reality that can be understood only by reference to hidden realms (stars, disembodied spirits, microscopic domains of axons and dendrites, DNA). Direct experience, through our unaided senses, is not to be trusted. So we find ourselves in thrall to experts who mediate our experience.

Abram articulates a way of directly experiencing an alive and sensuous world, rather than seeking to represent it through abstract ways, or objectively studying it.

The earth is the very body of wonder – and demands respect and reciprocity – according to Abram. There is “ the upwelling creativity in the land itself”. In a chapter called Mood, Abram describes the interplay between our sensory bodies and the weather. He describes his play with whales and seals. There are chapters on the discourse of birds, and of his time with a shaman in Nepal. He covers shadows and depth as areas to practice our sensuous engagement with the world.

We can be altered by our engagement with our surroundings, if we attune to them through our senses. He says: “Our animal senses are neither deceptive nor untrustworthy; they are our access to the cosmos. Bodily perception provides our most intimate entry into a primary order of reality that can disparaged or dismissed only at our peril”.

Every morning the sun rises, every evening the sun sets.

And we moderns know that this statement is completely and utterly false. The sun does not “set” and it does not “rise”. We know that the earth travels around the sun, and the earth spins on its axis. This fact was first established in 1543 by Copernicus, a Renaissance astronomer, and the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric (sun-centred) cosmology. He displaced the Earth from the centre of the universe. (Now that last comment causes me concern – the Earth should be the centre of our universe – it’s our home!)

Of course, we know the sun does not physically rise or set. But is something missing here? Our common, everyday speech of sunrise and sunset, and our perceptions, contrasts with a known scientific fact.

Perhaps what is missing is the knowledge, buried deep in our bones, that when we are situated in place, our perspective from that place is a valid viewpoint, even it if contrasts with “known” scientific facts. And from a place-based perspective we know the sun rises and sets – because we see it (or feel it) every day and night – it certainly does appear to climb up from the eastern horizon every morning and slides below the western horizon every night. I know, I have watched that big fiery ball rise and set many times!

Many indigenous perspectives treat their home, where they live, as the centre and heart of the world. And they have good reason to do so, as their entire lives revolve around place. Some Old Stories describe the sun as travelling through the ground during the night. And that seems like an entirely appropriate intuition!

So where was Copernicus when he formulated his idea? Well I’m sure he was in a place somewhere, but his thinking mind was really elsewhere. His mind was under the pretense of a detached, disembodied view from nowhere in particular (perhaps on the sun?)

So was Copernicus wrong? Of course not!

But a place-placed cosmology is one that allows different stories and different perspectives to arise. It starts with the fundamental assumption that the place being lived in is the locus of our existence. Being intimate with place, also allows the exploration of our sensory perceptions and bodily experiences.

And allows us once again to become intimate with the animate earth – the earth beneath our feet.

You won’t be surprised that, in Kangaroo Valley, where I live some of the time, there are kangaroos. I come across them from time to time on the land around the house, as they jump over or through my fences and hop, hop, thud, thud, crash, crash their way through the vegetation. Or I see them in the distance, sometimes in small numbers, or sometimes in mobs of 16 or more. Sometimes just a single kangaroo, and we make contact.

Where there was nothing, now there is something, standing, looking or jumping. They give me a curious look, perhaps wondering why this whitefella is doing here. Then they blend back into the landscape. The word that comes to mind is vanish.

Place is never empty. Place is full of others. Place is full of stories.

When I embrace this place, I notice life, the full range of creatures that inhabit this place, either momentarily, as some of the birds do, or for longer, as the lyrebirds and wombats do. They are part of this place. And I could spend the rest of my life understanding and participating in their stories.

The modern world tries to and often succeeds in destroying place. Martin Prechtel says: It’s strange how modern cultures spend so much time trying to make the rest of the world look and act as they do.

The modern world tries to destroy the story of place, and replace it with the story of a placeless, homogenous, virtual world. It spreads the idea that one place is as good as another.

We are told that place does not matter.

When I am in and embraced by my place, I don’t need much at all. I don’t need anything to buy, anything to organise my life. I don’t need anything to fill me. Each moment is a discovery of the world unfolding before my eyes.

Is it any wonder the modern world destroys placed based societies? And the stories that bind people to place?

Living in place, being committed to place, creating stories of place – these are truly radical actions that can counteract the placeless modern society.

Nothing ever stays the same.

Not me, not you. Not mountains, not blades of grass.

On the scale of the cosmos and the scale of the atom everything is changing, everything is moving.

Not only the things are changing, the relationships between things are constantly changing.

There is the constant forward moving energy of life. When we constrain this movement we can hurt others and ourselves. This hurt becomes the stage for the next movement.

When we try to solidify someone, something or a relationship, we’re in trouble, as we lose the openness to newness, we lose receptivity to what is right in front of us. We become rigid, get locked into patterns, get stiff with repetition and routines.

If everything is moving, and everything is in transition, transforming itself, how and where do we find stillness? And how do we create stability? Well, here’s a hint: There’s movement within stillness. And there’s stillness within movement.

Listen to this verse by TS Eliot:

At the stillpoint of the turning world
there the dance is.
And without the point
that stillpoint
there would be no dance
and there is only the dance.

Our modern culture is built on mobility, on constant distraction, on speed. How do you find the stillpoint in a society that can’t stand still, that doesn’t like the idea of somebody doing nothing?

We need something to anchor our lives. We need some constancy. Otherwise the constant movement spins us out of control.

Here’s my idea: Nature can provide an anchor for our lives. Its cycles and rhythms can be seen, felt and experienced. It is the larger context. It can hold us. But if we view nature as a resource for our consumer desires it won’t fulfil this role for us.

As the solstice arrives today, as the days lengthen (or shorten), can you feel that change? Can you move into stillness within that movement?

It seems to me that there’s a bit of reality emerging through our facade of business as usual. Biodiversity loss. Financial craziness (first banks, now countries). Injustice. Wars. Oil spills. Forest loss. Biodiversity loss. Natural eruptions. Food shortages. Do you sense a fall coming?

Some may argue that we are in for a shift rather than a fall. Some may say that even talking about a fall is overly pessimistic. Whatever happens in the future it would take extraordinary levels of denial not to at least entertain the possibility that our current financial and social structures may not last another 100 years.

Paul Hawken recently said this about the state of the world: “When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

So, I try and hold both pessimism and optimism together, and not to be swayed too far to either end. And I try to do my part in restoring health to the earth and its people.

As well as taking action, one of the really important things we do need to do is to re-examine the roots of what our society is based on. If the tree of civilization has shallow roots, as I believe it does, then it won’t take much of a wind to topple us.

What are the roots of our civilization? One major root is our reliance on a few forms of energy – oil, coal gas. Millions of years of stored ancient sunlight, mercilessly dragged from the depths of the earth and burned with abandon. As a consequence our societies are not very resilient, rather brittle, and could be subject to dramatic and unpleasant upheavals in our lifetime. Scary stuff.

Perhaps the future will not be an improved version of the present! Rather than believing we are facing technical problems to be solved, I believe we are being called into new ways of doing … everything!

As Arundhati Roy says: “Another world is possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”

Can we hear the breathing earth calling us? Can we hear message that reality is shouting at us? Can we look plainly at the things that challenge our fundamental understanding of the world?

I hope so.

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