Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Nature is not a temple, but a ruin"

"Yet there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so. Only 20 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is still home to all the large mammals it held five hundred years ago, and even across those refugia they are drastically reduced in abundance. The seas have lost an estimated 90 percent of their biggest fish. For decades there were almost no wolves, grizzly bears, or even bald eagles in the lower 48 [states of the US], and modern recovery projects have brought them back to only a small fraction of their former ranges. Scientists speak of an “ecology of fear” that once guided the movements and behavior of animals that shared land- and seascapes with toothy predators—an anxiety that humans once shared. In much of what’s left of the wild, that dread no longer applies even to deer or rabbits, let alone us. The sheer abundance and variety of the living world, its endless chaos of killing and starving and rutting and suffering, its routine horrors of mass death and infanticide and parasites and drought have faded from sight and mind. We have rendered nature an easy god to worship."

- J.B. MacKinnon, False Idyll.

This is a fascinating essay describing the evolution of our attitudes towards the natural world under the effects of our de-naturing of it. In short, the argument is that Romantic idealisation of Nature as sublime other is only possible (and necessary) after the de-wilding of wild places, the enormous upheaval that human presence or actions have effected upon the vast majority of the planet, especially the destruction of large predators that pose a direct physical threat to humans. Almost no predator larger than a dog has escaped losses in excess of 80-90% due to human activities. "There is little public awareness of impending biotic impoverishment because the drivers of collapse are the absence of essentially invisible processes [...] and because the ensuing transformations are slow and often subtle, involving gradual compositional changes that are beyond the powers of observation of most lay observers." We are bringers of profound change, and yet the changes we effect are often hidden from our own eyes, only registering gradually in large cultural shifts in our attitudes.

It is a false humility to pretend that humans are too puny to be shaping the world and its geophysical and ecological systems in profound ways. Humility means honestly facing the truth about our impact and making our political and ethical deliberations in light of it.


byron smith said...

Importing elements of interesting discussion from FB:

Geoff Leslie
The essential argument of this piece is that we have 'de-wilded' nature, making it easy to feel sentimental about it. We have eliminated all the large predators; everything that threatens humans we kill, shoot or spray.
I find it interesting that Isaiah's dream of the new world involves co-existence with lions, wolves, bears, snakes. I think we need to find ways of doing so as part of the Kingdom quest today

Richard Milligan: Several of my good friends are people who worship wilderness and being immersed in untamed, beautiful and challenging environments. They are some of the few but increasingly growing number of people who have the resilience, skills and opportunity to venture into wild places. Interestingly, they are often opposed to increasing access to eg FWD or helicopters and easy access by others wishing to worship (and in the process, tame). They oppose the use of devices such as EPIRB's and Satellite phones (as an impure way to worship). Yet I wonder whether the only difference is that they are able to worship because their wilderness god is under their skilful physical resilience; they would like it if they could remain the only ones able to worship...

Me: Very interesting. The impulse to worship is (I would argue) one form of grief over the abuse the natural order has received from our hands, an attempt to validate the victim with supreme reverence. Though in taking this (right) reverence into the realm of (idolatrous) worship, once more the true relationship with the natural order must be suppressed in various ways. That said, I wonder whether many who are said to "worship" nature are actually just expressing an appropriate level of deep reverence for our brothers and sister creatures and getting their language a little muddled at times. Give me someone who is said to "worship" nature over someone who sees it as so much raw material to be exploited any day (even if the latter justifies this position with pseudo-exegesis of a dominion-as-exploitation theology from Genesis 1).

Richard Milligan: I love that idea that the impulse to worship is a form of grief. The glint in the eye of someone showing deep reverence is something I both relate to and love seeing in others. I pray that my friends with this spirit would be prompted to bow in prayer of gratitude and wonder to God.

byron smith said...


Andrea: That we don't have much left, does not mean I do not feel closest to God in nature. I do also clarify that I feel second closest when I am with those humans to which I can share honest love and also pets too.

I feel the bible seems to reflect that people spend time alone in nature and have profound things revealed to them, heal them and so on.

Me: My point in posting this piece wasn't to question our experience of awe, wonder and delight in creation. God gives us these gifts. Though it is worth thinking about just what we mean by "creation" and how it now means something very different (and in many ways diminished and tamed) from what our ancestors (even our grandparents) woud have understood it to mean. When David (for instance) spent time in the natural world looking after his sheep, this involved fighting off lions and bears using little more than hands, sticks and slings. I guess he would have had quite a different understanding of what it meant to take "time out" in nature. Even Jesus faced wild beasts during his 40 days in the wilderness, though by this stage (1,000 years later) large predators were already in serious decline in Palestine. This process has only accelerated in the last 250 years and then again in the last 50 years so that the kinds of changes that we took a few thousand years to "achieve" with stone/bronze/iron age tools now happen in years. I guess one of the points of the article is to say that unless we are aware of just how significant our impact on the natural order is, we will not find ourselves relating to it honestly, even as we still gain much (genuine) pleasure and refreshment from our experiences.

Andrea: [...] Whilst I have awe in nature and find I am closest to God there, I am not "worshiping" nature. [...] (cont.)

byron smith said...

Me: Not a problem. I did not get the impression you are worshipping nature. Indeed, part of the point of my previous comment to Richard was to wonder whether many people really do. Reverence, even deep reverence, is not yet worship. I think this reverence is one appropriate form for our grief to take. But let us acknowledge that it is grief that is part of what lies beneath it. Of course, deeper yet than grief can only ever be joy. Unless we delight in something that is genuinely good, then we have no reason to grieve its loss or harm. And so grief is but an expression of thanksgiving and delight in the gift of being a creature amongst fellow creatures. [...] I am talking about mountaintop removal, bulldozing rainforests, overfishing of apex predators leading to 90% declines, of thousands and thousands of species going extinct from human actions, of changing the chemical composition of the oceans and atmosphere such that coral reefs and the Arctic are already in dire straights, and so on. See here.

I would suggest that unless grief is part of our response to this situation, we are not really paying attention. [...]

I suspect that the causative story is more complex for all of us than we usually imagine. Sometimes, causes are present but not yet conscious. The article is arguing that the whole movement towards reverence is only possible/necessary in a de-wilded nature. My suggestion is that this movement is (partially) an expression of (an as yet largely unacknowledged) grief.

Perhaps a similar story can be told about respect for indigenous cultures decimated by colonialism. The move towards more deliberate showing of respect in some circles (acknowledging original ownership, calls for reconciliation and so on) is in some sense an acknowledgement of grievous past wrongs.

Andrea: I understand what you are saying and certainly grief makes me appreciate nature more and want to fix it but in my case, when I "go to spend time in nature" it really is from joy. When I sing to the little pink tongued lizards on top of a cliff I as we both enjoy the sunset - the sunset still happens every day. I celebrate the constant of God's creation.

Let me say that where grief is involved 2% would be the subconciious response to our destruction of nature and 98% would be because I feel let down by humanity's lack of love. The total grief factor needed for me to rejuvinate may be 40% of me seeking nature but the rest truly is celebration in my heart as to what God has gifted. We are allowed to be joyful.

So I apologise but, whilst I recognise your point here, I know where I am on this one.

byron smith said...

John Roe: Thanks for linking this, Byron... Beyond our attitudes to living things, I'm often struck by the change in the way we appreciate inanimate Nature. Do you know "Letters on a tour through Scotland" by Lettice (18th c.) Here is his description of Glencoe: "nothing but rocky, dreary, dismal nakedness, one precipice after another, diversified alone by melancholy stacks of peat...it appeared but the carcase of a mountain, peeled, sore, and hideously disgustful." Yet now thousands of visitors marvel at its sublimity, and climbers trace beautiful arcs up the "disgustful" peak (Buachaille Etive Mhor)

Me: Fascinating quote, and given that it is about one of my favourite places in Scotland, all the more resonant. For me, Scotland's beauty cannot be separated from grief at the massive losses that have characterised the history of the landscape, both in terms of human society (highland clearances) and biodiversity decline (loss of basically all predators and all but 0.5% of ancient forest).

byron smith said...

(continuation of previous comment about Glencoe):

Fascinating quote, and given that it is about one of my favourite places in Scotland, all the more resonant. For me, Scotland's beauty cannot be separated from grief at the massive losses that have characterised the history of the landscape, both in terms of human society (highland clearances) and biodiversity decline (loss of basically all predators and all but 0.5% of ancient forest). The reason that Glencoe is so rocky, dreary and dismally naked, for instance, has a great deal to do with (a) deforestation both ancient and modern and (b) the clearing of human crofting habitation in favour of sheep and deer, who are stocked at rates that prevent any trees from growing and (c) the loss of all predators who would reduce sheep and deer stocking rates.

Glencoe also exemplifies the battle for access to the "wild", in that it was one of the sites of conflict earlier this century between landholders and ramblers, which eventually resulted in Scotland's excellent "right to roam" laws.

byron smith said...

Unnatural preservation.

"In the age of global warming, public-land managers face a stark choice: They can let national parks and other wildlands lose their most cherished wildlife. Or they can become gardeners and zookeepers."

byron smith said...

Guardian: The sixth great extinction menaces the foundations of culture.

This applies only to iconic species and so is not a complete argument for avoiding biodiversity loss, but is another piece of the puzzle.

byron smith said...

Yale360: Tue Nature: Revising ideas on what is pristine and wild by Fred Pearce.