I’m a city boy. I also love nature. The tension between these two things is not always easy, especially as nature doesn’t always seem to love me. I have bad hay-fever and pale skin so I burn easily in summer. The times when most people spend most time in nature and when many people state frequently that “it’s a lovely day,” I find myself most often responding by saying “well, it’s a hot day.” I am to summer what the Grinch is to Christmas! I am however passionate about caring for our planet. I love Mother Earth and I have spent enough time studying shamanism and indigenous tribal cultures from around the world that my world view is heavily influenced by animism. I see the world around me as deeply alive and I am one of those people who sees the destruction of our rich, natural environments by the steady progress of unthinking industrialisation as deeply concerning. However, unlike many of the people who are seeking in some way to save the planet I also love cities. I don’t subscribe to the view that some people of the earth loving persuasion seem to have adopted that human beings may just be the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet Earth. I love people. And there is a reality as far as I can see that more people live in towns and cities, and in the future even more people are going to live in towns and cities. Short of a mad Max-style apocalyptic Armageddon lots of people are going to continue to live in cities. I deeply admire the people who are caring for our wild natural environments, and leading others out into this wilderness to experience its beauty. However, while all of our attention in caring for the environment is focused on caring for the wild natural environment then for those many people like me who live in a town or city, we are at best stuck caring for something that is all too often distant, abstract, and insufficiently integrated into our daily lives.
The distinction is frequently made between what is natural and what is man-made and while I understand the making of this distinction I think it may be our biggest problem, our biggest barrier to really transforming our global attitude towards care for our beautiful planet. It’s interesting to me that this distinction is so often used in the language of those who seem to care most about the preservation of our planet. I would suggest that this language, this distinction, is the language of separation and it is this separation which is the enabler or even creator of the tragic human mind-set which leads to relating to the planet as a resource to be used, a thing to be objectified, and an environment to be conquered and dominated. As long as we see man as separate from nature we support a view of nature as other, and as long as nature is other we can be better than it, above it, instead of recognising our total interdependence with this beautiful entity that is planet Earth. Mankind is not separate from nature, it is a small part of nature, perhaps a growing part but the oceans, mountains, forests, the great mass of animal kind in all its beautiful diversity are still pretty substantial members of this grand collective entity too.
Returning to where I began this article, within the language of separation cities are often seen as the embodiment of the man-made. As long as this attitude continues even those of us most concerned with the preservation of nature unconsciously continue this language of separation and in doing so sustain the very attitude of arrogance which has led to mankind’s use and misuse of our beautiful natural home. While most people who are aware of our global ecological situation would agree that the march of urbanisation cannot continue with its current trajectory if the human race is going to find a way not to wipe itself out, a total rejection of urban environments seems unlikely to be a viable option short of catastrophic, mass destruction. My hope, and to some degree my faith is that the transformation of these environments is what is necessary, and possible. Like I say, I’m a city boy, and I think if we are to see this necessary transformation then we need to reclaim our cities as part of nature. Other animals than us build things. I have yet to meet the ecologists that look at the giant termite mounds with the distaste they might look at cities saying “what a shame they chose to build there, it’s ruined the landscape!” Of course, I know what we create is not the same as what termites create. What I am wanting to illustrate is how distain for the city, no matter how well intentioned in terms of environmental impact and ecological concern, is just as much an expression of the mind-set of separation that has led us to this mess, as the executive who looks on our countryside and sees only its potential to provide fossil fuels. The intention is different, but the underlying assumption of separation is the same.
John Perkins in one of his beautiful books relates the story of a first visit of an elder shaman, who has lived all his life in the Amazon basin, to New York City. This elder who would speak of great trees, mountains, and rivers as having genders, characters, and names; on first seeing the Empire State building made the comment “very beautiful, very feminine.” The irony of such a statement regarding so phallic a construction is quite a thing in itself, but something else stood out for me when I read this story. What was transformational in terms of my view of the world, was the fact that this elder shaman, this man who would have every right to come to a great Western city such as New York and see its industrialised opulence and be critical, instead saw this great building in the same light as he would look upon a mountain, a great tree, or a river. What this says to me is that so deeply rooted in his psyche is a total identification of himself and all mankind as just another part of nature. It is my conviction that if we are to successfully shift our trajectory in relation to our ecological crisis, then we must change the deep assumptions in our psyche’s which set mankind and our creations as separate from nature instead of merely a part of that great entity. Yes, we need change, I think we must change the way our urban environments operate and coexist with the wild and natural environments that surround them, but if we do this out of distain for those urban environments we continue the story of separation and domination, we continue to conquer instead of collaborating. To change your cities I think we must love our cities. I don’t think it’s going to be enough to take people out into wild nature and help them to love that. That work is wonderful, and beautiful, and necessary, and close to my heart but we must take the work of nature awareness, we must take the work of mindful interaction with our environment, and apply that to our cities just as much as we apply that to our parks, Forests, or places of natural beauty. It is said that part of why, when Europeans arrived in America, it was so easy for them to rob the indigenous tribes of their land is because the idea of land ownership was a nonsense to those indigenous tribes. The land did not belong to them, they belonged to the land.
Even if we managed to completely transform our way of relating to natural resources, unless we change the story of separation, at best we will become beneficent dictators and I suspect that all we will do is delay the inevitable. If we see ourselves as rescuers “saving the planet,” I believe we will fail to save the planet. I passionately believe that we need to tell a new story, the story of community, belonging, and collaboration. And maybe if we can learn to become loving, trustworthy, contributing members of the communal entity that is this beautiful blue green planet, then maybe that community, this planet will see fit to save us.