Something is amiss and we can't quite put our finger on what.
It seems that the further our society progresses, the more disenfranchised we feel. The hyper-connectivity of social media (which has its own potential) leaves us cold and over-informed, saturated with unwanted information and more aware than ever of the injustices of the world. It seems that the more virtually connected we get, the more disconnected we become, both from each other but also from our communities. I believe that a necessary backlash to this trend is a large-scale reconnection with nature that has the ability to transcend previous environmental movements and reshape our world. Moreover, I believe this undercurrent is gaining momentum and influencing every element of our lives. It's a revolution of belonging.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the curator and co-author of a book called Spiritual Ecology, summed it up by saying: "until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing." For many people, this "image of separateness" is permanent. The idea that they could be connected to a wider environment is completely entrenched. Technology, we seem to believe, remains the solution. Yet as Nancy Dess of the American Psychological Association states: "none of the new communication technologies involve human touch; they all tend to place us one step removed from direct experience." However, my belief is that through connectivity, we have a powerful opportunity to learn. That is, to recognise authenticity. Neurologist Frank Wilson, author of The Hand, identifies the problem: "These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior - but now we know that something's missing."
Cultural stories have an incredibly powerful influence on shaping society. As the philosopher Mark Rowlands says, "Humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves." At this stage, many believe that we are between stories. We have been fed the myth of progress, of advancement, of increased technology. Yet what we have found is growing dissatisfaction with late-stage capitalism as a means to answer any substantial questions. And objectionable treatment of planet, of other humans, of animals are all now laid bare by social media. As Thomas Berry said, we are still "between stories". The importance of telling appropriate stories is best summed up by biologist and Biophilia author E.O. Wilson who stated: "A culture creates its present and therefore its future through the stories its people tell, the stories they believe, and the stories that underlie their actions. The more consistent a culture's core stories are with biological and physical reality, the more likely its people are to live in a way compatible with ecological rules and thereby persist." Currently, we aren't even close.
As Chellis Glendinning pointed out: "we split our consciousness, repress whole arenas of experience, and shut down our full perception of the world." And at no point is this more obvious than in the rise of social media. I believe we use social media to connect with the world, seeking to soothe a misplaced sense of longing we can't quite understand. Similarly, the entirety of celebrity culture is based on a fundamental human yearning for acceptance. The private universes we are taught to inhabit serve core underlying business models. Stanley and Loy said: "By glorifying self-concern as never before, consumerism generates a mental environment of endless competition. It undermines empathy, altruism and cooperation. The dominant institution of our age is no longer religion, government or academia. It is the global business corporation." The great undoing of our communities serves the few, not the many.
The greatest fear of disconnection with nature, and the widest response thus far, seems to be for children. At some point, society separates our young people from the natural world, reinforcing a doctrine that has been evolving for hundreds of years. There's a transition point, before which the poet Anita Barrows confirms; "the infant has an awareness not only of human touch, but of the touch of the breeze on her skin, variations in light and colour, temperature, texture, sound." Once we are walking and talking, the natural world appears to us in its full faculty. Philosopher David Abram, the founder of Wild Ethics, defines 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."
The response to this paucity in our society is starting to be clearly recognised. Pioneer writers such as Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle) recognised that something was deeply wrong and started planning solutions. In America, the Child and Nature Network operates under the vision of: "A world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives." Louv, who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder, co-founded their Nature Rocks initiative. Meanwhile, in the UK, Project Wild Thing stands tall as the social organisation reconnecting children with nature.
Yet if children are the most obviously affected, this speaks volumes about our society, and how nature deficit most adults truly are. Thomas Berry made it clear that humans actually need to "identify with the nonhuman." He firmly believed that children should be the guide to how our universe is experienced, but what about us adults? The strategic health advisor to Natural England, Dr. William Bird, has long been on record pointing out the connections between health and nature for children and adults alike. Adolescence and rites of passage into adulthood are forgotten. Paul Shepard made it clear that: "Western peoples are separated by many generations from decisions by councils of the whole, small-group nomadic life with few possessions, highly developed initiation ceremonies, natural history as every person's vocation, a total surround of non-human-made (or "wild") otherness with spiritual significance, and the "natural" way of mother and infant. All these are strange to us because we are no longer competent to live them - although that competence is potentially in each of us."
I believe that this movement (whose many voices remain disparate) has the ability to unite a new generation, to dispel (to paraphrase Vaughan-Lee) our "image of separateness." And the reason for this has to do with our own shared identity as children, something we all once were. George Mackay Brown puts it well: "We were all poets, and have squandered our inheritance like the prodigal son. But we have kept enough back to remember how immensely rich we were once, in our childhood, when poetry flowed in unchecked through our senses." George Monbiot brings it back to the heart of the issue in his book Feral: "Of all the world's creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children's engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world."
Wide-open spaces were my childhood and surfing has taken me to wilderness all over the world in search of empty waves. The wild is a voice that never stops whispering. It enters your pores by osmosis, and once it's under your skin, good luck forgetting. The wild haunts the imagination, calling you back to places of vast sky and fast-running light, where solitude hunts for you and the edges of the world get ragged. These empty places are mirrors; they reflect back everything of yourself. They are teachers too, of a thousand lessons beyond anything our hands have made. Out there time stops walking, takes on different hues.
So what are we looking at here? The Great Turning as identified by Joanna Macy, a final push into the Ecozoic Era described by Thomas Berry, a mindful revolution of consciousness as advocated by the unlikely figure of Russell Brand? Neil Evernden highlighted the potential: "the really subversive element in ecology rests not on any of its more sophisticated concepts, but upon its basic premise: inter-relatedness." Vaclav Havel went one step further: "without a global revolution in human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans."
Being green in the United Kingdom still attracts a sort of stigma. I believe that the movement outlined here transcends the doom-and-gloom environmentalism of my lifetime and offers great potential. I also believe this ideology is leaking into the way we conduct business and govern our society. As Gus Speth, a US Advisor on climate change (must be a harrowing job) said: "I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty 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." Therefore, more than ever, it comes down to you and I, to us.