A number of years ago I went on holiday to a beautiful part of Portugal. We stayed in a converted farmhouse in the middle of a national park. The farmhouse was in a valley. We arrived in the evening when the birds were just starting to roost. It was still warm and the air smelled sweet with pollen. You could hear the hum of crickets. A small river flowed through that valley. We opened a rickety ga...
The absence of a deep emotional connection between humans and the natural world is at the root of the environmental crisis.
Can you think of a place in nature that you know really well?
Close your eyes for a moment and see what comes up.
Can you visualise the place in exquisite detail? The sounds, the colours, the smells, the subtleties that only you know.
Do memories surface? Perhaps you have known this place for a long time. Maybe you spent golden moments from your childhood here? There might be happy memories tinged with sadness or regret?
How does it feel when you bring this place to mind now?
Please don’t rush. Take a moment to connect.
Now another question.
How would you feel if this same place was under imminent threat? Imagine someone is destroying it right now. What do you feel? Anger? Sadness? Shock? Resignation? Nothing at all?
Can you imagine that you might actually do something immediate and tangible to help protect this place?
Be honest with yourself.
If you really have a deep connection with this place, it is likely that you might feel moved to do something. That’s obvious, right? We naturally and instinctively act to protect that which we care very deeply about.
But what if that deep connection with a place is absent? How would that affect your response? It’s a beautiful place but it’s not your place. Are you still likely to do something about it? Is it your responsibility?
Let me paint two scenarios for you…
You are walking through town at night and you see your best friend looking dishevelled, sleeping rough on the street. You haven’t seen him for six months. There is probably an initial shock: “Oh my God, what happened?!!” You instinctively reach out for him. Before you know it your arm is on his shoulder: “Come home with me. Let me take care of you”.
Now another night. This time you see a random stranger looking dishevelled, sleeping rough on the street. Be honest. What do you do? Is it someone else’s problem? If your heart is big enough you might give him some money or buy him a sandwich but is he coming home to sleep on your couch? Perhaps you rationalise your inaction by reminding yourself that you donate to the local homeless charity. You might remind yourself to vote for a politician who appears committed to doing something. But most of the time most of us don’t do anything at all.
Why the difference? It’s obvious isn’t it… in the first scenario you don’t even think. You have a deep emotional connection with your best friend and you have to act. In the second scenario you might feel sad and you might recognise the tragedy of the situation but there is no emotional connection between the two of you, so more often than not you don’t act.
John Steinbeck put it very well when he wrote (at a time when there was famine in China): “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.” There needs to be an emotional connection for the thing to have any meaning.
It is the very same when it comes to the environmental crisis. There is a groundswell of support at the moment for taking steps to avert climate change. The reality that there is a problem seems to have finally dawned on a lot of people. But still most people don’t really “do” anything significant do they? I’m not being self-righteous or judgemental here. I know that I’m guilty of it myself. Why are we all so passive? Why do we wait for someone else to do something?
There are a number of reasons and it’s not simple (and I certainly don’t have the answer). I have thought about it a lot though and I have some ideas:
- The sheer scale of the problem is so frightening, most of us don’t feel capable of doing anything meaningful. The tree is about to fall down and I am just a tiny ant!
- Society as currently constructed is designed to make us passive and docile. We lead incredibly busy lives… commute, work, eat, exercise, shop, look after the kids, more work, Netflix, bed. Most of us just sleepwalk through life on automatic pilot waiting for the next brief window of pleasure. One day blending into the next. We have hardly any time to reflect, let alone act.
- Many in society feel socially isolated. The sense of community has broken down. Loneliness is an epidemic at the moment. If you feel like you are on your own, you are far less likely to summon up the courage to do something. The Titanic is sinking and you are just one person with a bucket. Everyone else on the boat is a stranger to you. What’s the point?
- Perhaps the biggest reason we do nothing is that most of us have lost the sense of deep connection with the natural world that our ancestors took for granted. If you don’t feel deeply connected to nature, you obviously don’t care about it in the same way and you are far less likely to do something immediate and meaningful. It’s the same reason why you ignore the homeless person you don’t know.
So what can you do?
I don’t have the answer. It does however seem to me that passing various pieces of legislation, banning single use plastics and imposing carbon taxes is essentially treating the symptom and not the disease. Like an obese person with type 2 diabetes who goes to the doctor because he has high blood pressure and takes a tablet every day without fundamentally changing the way he lives his life, and more importantly changing his relationship with himself. I’m not saying that strong legislative action isn’t essential. It obviously is, but the root goes much deeper.
It is probably a good idea for you to start very small. You can do something and maybe others will follow. It’s also great if you don’t feel like you are on your own. Can you find and connect with a community of others who feel the same way as you? Here is a small example to show you what I’m talking about…
I live in an apartment complex in a suburb of Dublin. One day I saw one of the gardeners spraying the lawn with pesticides. He was wearing a mask because he didn’t want to ingest those chemicals himself. I spoke with him. He was a nice man, just doing his job. I could have left it there but I didn’t because I felt something… anger, sadness, defiance, some strength. Why is this happening to my place?! I put up a petition which was promptly taken down by the management company. But it was still seen and lo and behold, some other people who live here agreed that we should stop spraying the gardens where we live. So suddenly there is community. I’m not one person on a sinking ship with a bucket. There is some strength in numbers and there is the possibility of something positive happening. It’s a drop in the ocean but it counts.
Most importantly, to get to the root of this problem we need to rediscover the deeper connection with nature which we have lost. Mindfulness is one way of cultivating this connection. It takes time and patience. Two things in life which are in very short supply.
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh expressed it beautifully: “To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of woody meadows, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as any man can fully experience.”
Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue a deeper nature experience… for the masses it is width that counts, not depth. We are addicted to new experiences. Consuming new places in a very shallow and meaningless way. A nice photograph for Instagram and another place ticked off the list.
What about the places we habituate? The lane we pass on our way to work. The horse chestnut tree in the field overlooking the car park. The park where we walk the dog. The canal where we eat our lunch everyday.
Do you stop and listen to the trees stirring in the breeze? Do you notice the first leaves of spring and the very last leaves of winter? Do you know the call of each songbird? Have you noticed how the character of a place changes day by day and even moment by moment?
Can you slow down and pay attention in these moments?
It’s a drop in the ocean but it counts.