A Second Fall – Notes on a Wounded Culture
“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominium has broken Nature’s social union.”
Robert Burns – To A Mouse
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
“Why try to improve matters, you will only make matters worse.”
Conservation and Ecology,
and the Dangers of Intention
When humankind first took from Nature in order to transform it – for example the transmutation of ore into metals – these early technologies were considered as a sacred activity, until the one-sided and exclusive philosophies of rationality and reason robbed us of our connection with Nature and the numinous, and a true sense of awe and humility. While, at the same time it is important to recognise that even the earliest technologies, for example flint tool-making, also developed in tandem with the manufacture of weapons. Flint scrapers were produced at the same time as arrowheads, whether for use in hunting – providing skins for the use of those scrapers – or as weapons for defence or conflict. It was not until the European Enlightenment, however, that technology as a weapon in a war of dominance over and against Nature itself, was developed.
This cultural situation that we have created for ourselves, and now increasingly the rest of humanity, leaves us no other avenue to go down in trying to redress the environmental tragedy we have created, than employ the same ignorant, muddled and damaged mind-set with which we created the problem in the first place. Our troublesome, self-conscious and imagined salvific acts towards, and alleged care for, the natural environment – our efforts at conservation and ecology – are, too often, actually only ways of keeping tabs on it, and frequently result in yet further harm. I believe there are too many occasions where Nature actually needs protection from the very people who consider themselves naturalists and conservationists, since our culture has reduced us to a mind-set which approaches the natural world through the accumulation of conceptual scientific knowledge, and images and statistics about it, which no matter how impressive do not actually bring us any closer to true understanding. Instead, it tends to reduce our relationship to Nature to a kind of spectator sport on the level of train/plane spotting, with instant capture by camera or phone and the ticking of boxes – as we removed ourselves from the natural world we placed Nature in our heads. All the while imagining, and being led to believe, that these actions and activities mean that we are somehow respecting, cherishing, caring for, and understanding the natural world, and by doing so, we are participating in the Great Continuum. When in reality, it encourages a way of further objectifying Nature and relating to it as a continuation of an already-established and invasive scientific curiosity, and merely creates an even deeper alienation.
Consider briefly, just a few of the ways we express our concern and love for Nature. We attach coded rings, radio collars, cameras, and insert computer chips and satellite tags to animals and birds, and track them by numbers, or very often with the anthropomorphic insult of giving them human names. And catch and inject fish with dye, and attach radio-trackers in order to trace their territorial boundaries, and migratory journeys. We spy on, and film the most intimate habits and habitats of animals and birds, so that they may be observed by us from the comfort of our sitting rooms. And as for the body of the planet itself, to get to the imagined heart of this matter, we place it in a machine, and speed it up in order to break its heart. This is what we have reduced ourselves to in our attempts at environmental healing and understanding the (not our) planet. To continuing to behave in the same invasive and meddlesome manner, with which we have always behaved, in the name of scientific research, long before there were any such ideas as conservation or ecology.
Our recent, universally declared ‘love’ of Nature most often ends up loving it to death. The fact of the matter is, we do not truly love Nature, nor have any idea what that ‘love’ might mean. Rather we are in love with the idea of loving Nature and our ideas about it,and while fascinated by it, too often remain suspicious and fearful of it, and relate to it ambivalently through our own dark, unconscious motives that we often project onto it. We only ‘love’ Nature with the most conditional and selective kind of love – Nature on our own terms. That is to say, benign, predictable, ‘beautiful’, ‘cute’, productive, useful, or, ironically displays an intelligence we imagine might resemble our own! Creating a hierarchy of the animal world crowned by ‘iconic animals’, and leading down to ‘ordinary’, ‘common’, or ‘unpleasant’ species. Or else in images and statistics that make us wonder through our own narrow conceptualising minds – loving Nature as a form of environmental consumerism. Nature as commodity, instead of being recognised and experienced as manifestations and emanations of sacred intelligence, of which, we are ourselves essentially a part. I believe that objectifying the natural world in this manner, remains an unconscious attempt at denying it, and disempowering it – to have control over it. While neither our current obsession with it, nor our sentimental and proprietary attitudes towards it, are genuine expressions of either love or concern.
Only a culture like ours could treat Nature as mass entertainment, as theatre – an electronic zoo; a T.V. sideshow – most recently sending television ‘personalities’ and comedians out into the ‘wild’ to make inane comments and jokes about flora and fauna. And produce films that commonly reduce animal life to the level of sentimental soap opera – while we relax from work that most often has no intrinsic value or meaning to it, other than keeping the jaws of consumerism lubricated, or amending its menu. And when we discover any area on the planet which has somehow managed to maintain something of its natural, environmental integrity, we invent ‘eco-tourism’, in order to make ourselves feel virtuous about our trespass, which while possibly being benign in some cases, and providing indigenous peoples with support and in turn protecting some sensitive areas and species, under other circumstances is already causing problems in certain conservation areas. One well-known example being the Galapagos Islands, now suffering beneath the shadow of this allegedly benign intrusion, to be followed closely by the Arctic and Antarctic regions, which are already suffering from global warming, and where, beside conservation concerns, we are already arguing for, and expressing, territorial claims and rights for the further exploitation of natural resources.
We demand, or expect access to anywhere and everywhere, and have most recently begun sending probes to Mars, while indulging ourselves without ever pausing to ask whether we have either earned, or are deserving of such an excess of access.
Demeaning and reducing Nature, we demeaned and reduced ourselves. And while commonly describing Nature as “red in tooth and claw”, we conveniently forget, while considering ourselves as civilised and motivated by what we see as benign conscious intention, and allegedly in possession of a moral and ethical conscience, just how murderous we are, in both mind and deed.
The only true conservation is in learning to live with, and symbiotically as part of, Nature. Anything else is a lie. But since we have strayed so far down this crooked path now, as to be lost not only to ourselves, but all else besides, the best we can do, once we have organised conservation and set-aside areas, is to leave them alone as far as possible, and allow the natural environment to heal itself. And once they are established, avoid the commodifying, consumer mind-set of using them as tourist opportunities. Too often what plies its trade under the banner of being conservationally caring, turns out to be yet another way, albeit apparently benign, and with the best of intentions, of continuing to impose our will and ideas on Nature, and render it in servitude to us.
Our obsession now on our television screens, and in magazines and the itineraries of tour agents, with the natural world and the last surviving lives of those who still live symbiotically with it, suggests elements of the murderer’s pre-occupation with the corpse of his victim, and the scene of the crime. Displaying both perhaps, a kind of vulturine appetite, while at the same time being symptomatic of the anxiety born of the knowledge of its imminent demise. It is as though we still cannot get enough. As if we somehow, still want whatever is left. Every last drop…pour it through our screens into our sitting rooms. We can consume it as a side-dish with this instant TV dinner. Or is it, even perhaps at the same time, given our fractured mind-set, a longing, a soul-thirst to ‘return’, to be reborn ‘back into’ the world, while lacking the knowledge or the means how to do so. The present plight of the planet precisely mirrors our own psycho-spiritual state in its contaminated, unbalanced, and moribund condition.
We have now reached the position for ourselves where, while from certainly the Enlightenment onwards, a science that led us away from Nature while taking an antagonistic stance against it, has now, ironically, volunteered itself as the custodian of the natural environment, and as a kind of conservation cavalry. It is not we who can save or heal the planet, only the planet can heal herself, given the time and space. Our task should be to stop preventing her from doing so. The very concept and term ‘Nature’, is itself an unconscious articulation of pain issuing from the feverish lips of our cultural wound – it is an onomastic howl – whereas most holistic cultures had no such concept or designation as ‘Nature’ in their vocabulary.
Having not owned a television set for some thirty years now, I do occasionally see ‘wild life programmes’ when staying with family or friends. In fact, compiling and organising these writings while staying in a friend’s house, I have, over a short period, watched so many that I have reached the point of nauseated saturation, and no longer wish to see any more. So while returning briefly to the subject, I am reminded of a television film I saw some years ago, entitled, The World of Insects. I was so appalled by it that I actually took notes. The voice-over in the film, described insects as being, “like extraterrestrials”, “bizarre”, as being “like robots”, and “programmed”. What it described of course, was not insects at all, but we humans, who have made ourselves “extraterrestrials”, and are certainly “bizarre” and “programmed”. Some time later, on a radio programme, I heard an environmental scientist describe the call of whales as “unearthly”. He obviously had little experience of the earth, and probably not much knowledge of anything else besides the narrow confines of his own discipline. And more recently, at the time of writing, I have watched two television films; the first of naturalists working in a volcanic area of Papua New Guinea, where they were discovering hitherto unknown species. In the film, an entomologist was awaiting the emergence of a moth from its chrysalis, when he expressed the hope that it would not turn out to be, “a boring little moth”! When he was taken aback by the beauty of the emergent creature, he declared, “It’s my wife’s birthday today, and since I can’t be with her, if this turns out to be a new species, I’ll name it after her.” In the second, young bears were being radio-collared by environmental scientists, while at the same time having cerise-pink ribbons tied to them, in order, we were told, that hunters would not shoot them, as they were “research animals”. The depressing, and sheer arrogant audacity expressed in these appalling sentiments and actions, describes precisely why we do not need these kinds of ‘custodians’ of the natural world, and are sadly replicated in the majority of ‘nature’ or ‘wild life’ programmes. While currently, our screens are now filled with films of the lives of the media’s own green priesthood itself in ‘the wild’.
It is very worrying, and at the same time indicative of our dilemma, when conservation groups and organisations against climate change, too commonly draw their funding from the very sources that are part of the problem, such as those connected to the fossil fuel industries, and while an august body like the Nature Conservancy, actually owns an oil well which is situated right within one of its own conservation areas! And all too frequently, high media profile ‘conservationists’ and ‘naturalists’ appear in television commercials, endorsing and feeding the appetite of that very thing which is destroying the natural environment and the integrity of human society.
Most environmentalists and naturalists have no true experience or knowledge of Nature, other than through the concepts, theories, statistics, and our arid cultural descriptions of the natural world taught in school and university classrooms, and by instructors in the field. Instead of developing a silent, egoless awareness, and opening up our bodies and its senses to the natural world, without the cacophony of our feral selves, we commonly only experience it through the glass (or lens) opaquely, of our acquired ideas, and assumed conceptual knowledge about it instead. While our ways of seeing and visioning the natural world have too often become contaminated by photography (now digitalised to ‘perfection’), television commercials linking technology and commodity to wilderness, and edited film. Few of us know, anymore, how to enter the natural environment; to walk in it without distorting the experience with the detritus of the constant cerebral static of our own conditioned thought processes. We have forgotten how to attain the silence of our own being and the transcending of this dichotomy. And we should not forget that ‘green’ can also mean ‘naïve’, while it has become a very profitable consumer label to stick on commodities, the backsides of politicians, and illuminate the vanity of scientists.
The current ideas of reintroducing species into areas where they have been made extinct is admirable at times where it is naturally feasible to do so without causing an imbalance to the present existing order of things – sea eagles, ospreys, choughs, red kites etc. being good examples. However, when it comes to the reintroduction of species which were once indigenous a very long time ago, such as wolves, and in many areas beavers, for example, into environments which are now, in importance respects, quite different to the ones from which they were originally banished, then we have to question how much such propositions and actions have to do with the psychology – personal desires, sentimentality, or fantasies – of those suggesting it, rather than any true understanding or responsibility towards what remains of the natural world. In most cases we will once again create more imbalances, resulting in that perennial need for control and the annual culling of such creatures, or the illegal poisoning and trapping, as is already happening, for example, in a ‘remote’ area in America and similar places, where both wolves and beavers have been reintroduced. Already, at the time of writing, we carry out, or have plans for the future cull of existing fauna such as seals (where fisherman sometimes ironically claim, along with otters, that they are ‘stealing’ fish); deer (wherever herds exist); grey squirrels (in the Gower Peninsula and soon of the introduced greys throughout Britain); badgers (based on still questionable research into TB in cattle); boar (in the Forest of Dean); foxes (all over the place) and so on. Just imagine the sign-ups for a wolf cull! At this rate, we shall be culling till the cows come home, once more in the name of conservation. That is, if cows have not been scapegoated and culled themselves, for the over-production of ‘greenhouse gases’. And it is surprising and depressing, how often I still hear the tired argument or suggestion put forward in discussions about the extinction of species, that species have always become extinct, forgetting that there is a great abyss between the difference of a species naturally becoming extinct, and ones driven to extinction through actions brought about by human intention, whether that intention is directed towards specific species or is some other unrelated activity, which at the same time affects them.
All the while, we speak of conserving the natural environment “for future generations” of humankind; when we should be thinking of conservation of Nature for itself; for what it is. To move away from this ego-anthropocentrism to a consciousness that is ecocentric.
Montage: Claire Palmer
Malcolm Ritchie’s essay A Second Fall – Notes on a Wounded Culture will be published in six parts on International Times.