Today’s rate of species extinction is 1000 times greater than that suggested by the fossil record prior to humans. The respected Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, says this rate could reach 10,000 times the natural background rate in a decade, whilst current evidence strongly suggests that we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth extinction crisis. This is not due to planetary processes or collisions from large objects from space, but by one species ever expanding their habitat, extracting resources and returning toxic byproducts to the environment.
In the EU’s latest report1, findings show a third of EU bird species are endangered and that our natural habitats are “slowly dying”. In the UK, ten-year trends show the decline of 72 % of butterfly species2. Globally, the CO2 concentration is the highest for the last 800,000 years.
Carbon dioxide levels featured in the news recently with Obama’s plan to fight climate change. However, he had a plan campaigning in 2008, while it was not even mentioned by him or Romney in the 2012 race. Last week’s news sounds more promising, however, the larger question remains, why and how has it come to this when the state of environmental decline is clearly observable? And I am not singling out U.S. politicians in particular.
The deep ecologist and cultural historian Thomas Berry raised this question in different ways in his rich writings3. He argued that “we are just emerging from the technological trance into which the human mind has been placed by the scientific-technological modes of thinking that have dominated human existence for the past two centuries”. To put it simply, we have been dazzled by the tools that we have created and the control they give us over our environment, rather than by that which truly sustains us. These modes of thinking have also been supported by cultural and religious traditions that assert human primacy.
Compared to our ancestors, we are further separated from nature in our apartments and cars, and have no substantial connection with the food we eat. Our educational institutions currently train far more students to embrace the extractive and wasteful economy than to seek solutions and return to a more intimate relationship with the Earth. We have created a human planet but have forgotten that it is this planet that sustains the human.
So how can we turn the ship around? Past and current cultural, religious and economic thinking has failed the environment, so perhaps we need to look deeper, at our own identity. Berry argues that we should turn back to our genetic imperative, the source of our culture. Here, our genes are more than a physical determination of our being, but “our richest psychic endowment, our guiding and inspiring force…”. Our genes provide us with the “shamanic dimension of the psyche” and pave the way for a re-enchantment of our perception of living things. E.O. Wilson also asserts that humans have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”. This is not surprising considering that during 99 % of our human history we lived in hunter-gatherer groups and were closely connected to other living organisms.
We are part of nature, and to deny this part of ourselves is to ignore our heritage and our potential. This psychological impairment and disconnection has allowed us to continue our destructive ways on this planet. The path back is to renew our relationship with nature, by returning to fundamentals. Practically speaking, this means spending more time in nature, being aware of our food and how it is sourced and considering ourselves as part of an ecosystem in all that we do. Reflection is needed on who we are, not as act of wounded navel-gazing, but rather to consider our place on this planet in this universe. Once we heal our relationship with nature, the rest will follow in our behaviour. This will be the inner driving force as members of communities and schools, as practicing architects and engineers, or sitting on company boards or judging political candidates. Environmental laws and protection will have their place, but without real change of perception, they will only be perceived as a bureaucratic hindrance and the expansion of government. Our future lies in this act of individual and collective responsibility.
This article can also be viewed at SALT magazine.
- State of Nature in the EU. http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/state-of-nature-in-the-eu
- The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2011. https://butterfly-conservation.org/files/soukb2011.pdf
- The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Thomas Berry (2000)
- Biophilia. E.O Wilson (1990)