This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Microbial You, under the title 'The Wilderness Within'. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.
Despite the pace of our technological advancement, economic progress and limitless choices, we feel ever more disenfranchised. Although our virtual connection is unparalleled, we are left disconnected from each other, our communities and ourselves. The necessary response to this is a large-scale human reconnection with the natural world, but also a greater appreciation that we are part of nature and that what we do is an extension of nature. The wilderness we all yearn for is no more distant than inside us. I also believe that this undercurrent is rapidly increasing in scope from something that we merely feel to a widespread revolution that will shape and govern how we relate to the world in the future.
The voices that support this argument are manifold. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the author of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, stated that “until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing”. This separation is endemic in our society: where we came from is forgotten. We are a forward-facing species, haring towards the goals that our society and cultural stories stress as important. Now, with the advent of personal connectivity, these ‘ideals’ are constantly reiterated, still further alienating us from nature. Yet, as neurologist Frank Wilson said: “These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior – but now we know that something’s missing.”
The missing something is our individual connection with nature. Not the solitary explorer alone in a virgin wilderness, but – for each of us – our basic, practical relationship with the natural world. It’s no surprise we’ve got to where we are. As John Seed, the legendary Australian environmentalist, said: “The idea that humans are the crown of creation, the source of all value, the measure of all things, is deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness.” Similar sentiments are everywhere. The ecopsychologists Margaret Kerr and David Key defined the effect of our removal from nature: “Separated from our original natural gestalt, we may sense that something is missing, but project our inner deficit onto the wilderness, and experience it as a vast, frightening emptiness. We try, in vain, to fill the emptiness with mass media, celebrity culture, consumerism, alcohol and drugs. We have become afraid of the fertile darkness.”
Yet this represents a fantastic opportunity. Building a relationship with the natural world has the capacity to reshape every facet of our human experience. Cultural stories have vast influence in shaping society. As the philosopher Mark Rowlands says, “Humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves.” So what we need are new stories. Philosopher David Abram, the founder of the Alliance for Wild Ethics, defined how we experience the world: “Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ear and nostrils – all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.” Nature deficit disorder, endemic in our society, closes off our senses and separates us from the true magic of inhabiting this planet. Much has been made of our ‘homelessness’ as a species, our disconnection from our supply chain, the growing certainty that there is something wrong with our world, and our powerlessness to react. Reclaiming this power begins with a heartfelt reconsideration of ourselves in relation to nature. When we look at humans as merely part of a gigantic planetary organism, each constituent vital to our shared future, a very different set of values become important.
The cultural historian Thomas Berry said that humans need to “identify with the non-human”. This ‘biophilia’, identified by the biologist E. O. Wilson, is so widespread that it could be taught in schools. William Bird, the doctor and health advisor, has long been on record pointing out how completely interwoven health and nature really are. By nurturing our relationship with it, we nurture ourselves. All we need is simple, practical guidance. The environmentalist Neil Evernden perfectly summarised the potential: “the really subversive element in ecology rests not on any of its more sophisticated concepts, but upon its basic premise: inter-relatedness.” The idea that our future could be heavily dependent on our individual relationship with the natural world, how much we connect to the wilderness within, is growing rapidly in public consciousness. Gus Speth, a senior advisor on climate change to the US Government, said: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” This transformation will not come from governments, corporations or anyone else. It will come from you and me, for us.
Daniel Crockett is the author of the book Wildonomics: Ten Social Experiments To Connect Humans With Nature.
Image credit: Lotus Johnson /Flickr