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.
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.
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, who 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 Episode 1.
Dr. Geoff Berry, Researcher, Writer & Presenter
City Living, Nature Calling – an ecological documentary like no other!