Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avatar as Metaphor

Avatar, James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie that depicts humans in conflict with aliens on a distant world, has smashed box office records. As described in a recent New York Times article (1), it has also struck a cultural nerve, offending a diverse range of special interest groups. Among those critical of the film are political conservatives (who balk at the supposed critique of American imperialism), feminists (who feel that the female avatars not sufficiently muscular), antismoking advocates (who note that one lead character is a smoker), and the Vatican (objecting to the fact that spiritual animism fares better than monotheism). In China, many see the movie as an allegory for the forced relocation of thousands of people in the face of burgeoning construction projects. Amidst this diversity of interpretations, Cameron himself has been relatively silent, except to say that Avatar is a metaphor for “how we treat the natural world.”

Despite its blockbuster budget and runaway success, in the end it’s good to remember that we’re talking about a movie rather than a philosophical treatise. Yet once in a while a popular film comes along with the potential to help refocus our thinking about a pressing societal issue. Although Avatar is loaded with clich├ęs, including the predictable complement of brave heroes and evil villains, as an environmental parable it is nonetheless valuable (at least as I see it), and well worth unpacking. (Warning: If you are one of the few who has not seen this film, and plan to, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.)

Having ransacked Earth’s natural “resources,” imperialist humans in the mid-22nd Century are now looking to do much the same to other worlds. A corporate interstellar convoy backed by heavily armed marines has landed on a distant moon, Pandora, which contains an abundant supply of energy-rich (and ironically-named) “Unobtanium.” The only problem is the Na’vi, 10 foot tall natives for whom the land and its inhabitants are sacred. Enter ex-marine Jake Sully, who, as an avatar—a human mind in an alien body—infiltrates the locals in order to seek a solution. Sully is soon torn between two worlds, the human world of his birth and the alien world of his “re-birth.” Insert a love story, plenty of explosive battle scenes, and a culminating victory for the good guys, and you have the gist of the plot.

For me (and many others), the most remarkable aspect of this film are the alien landscapes. Hundreds of millions of dollars, great heaps of imagination, and a modicum of science were combined to yield a stunning world, at once wondrous and familiar. In contrast to Earth’s array of four-legged, back-boned land-dwellers, Pandora is inhabited by multiple varieties of six-legged beasts reminiscent of horses, coyotes, rhinos, and other earth-like forms, all presumably descended from a common ancestor with six legs. Unsurprisingly, the alien protagonists are bipeds that appear remarkably human, an unlikely state of affairs biologically, yet understandable from a cinematic perspective. Also present are leathery-winged creatures with more than a passing resemblance to Mesozoic flying reptiles (pterosaurs). But most stunning of all are the plants. I can’t think of another film where the plants upstage many of the film’s stars, but this statement applies to Avatar. Movie-goers are treated to an astonishing forest landscape that drips with greenery by day and fluoresces to the touch by night.

Returning to the film’s message, Avatar tells a story of colliding worldviews. The imperialist-minded humans lack any form of spiritualism, viewing nature as something to be controlled and exploited—by force if necessary. The Na’vi, in stark contrast, practice a form of naturalism; they inhabit a world teeming with animistic spirits and see themselves as intricately interwoven into their land and its history. These lanky blue beings even possess the ability to establish a physical link with other Pandoran life forms. In short, whereas the invading humans regard themselves as outside nature, mirroring the current Western mindset, the Na’vi worldview embeds them deeply within nature, as is true for virtually all indigenous peoples on Earth today.

Although grossly caricatured in this Hollywood dramatization, the inside and outside perspectives of nature may just represent a critical choice that we must soon make as a species. Our current worldview as conquerors of an external nature seems to lead ineluctably down the path of destruction, as evidenced by the many environmental catastrophes of the past century. Conversely, the notion of participants within nature--co-creating a sustainable world with the rest of our biological relatives—although revolutionary and unfamiliar to the Western mind, may just be essential to making us viable once again.

Importantly, the “insider’s” view is entirely consistent not only with ancient wisdom but with modern science, from ecology and evolution to chemistry and physics. Indigenous peoples (whether on Earth or on Pandora) have it right. In order to be whole, we need to feel like we are a part of nature, literally inside the natural world. We need firsthand experiences with the nonhuman world that inspire feelings of awe, wonder, and reverence. We need to live in a meaningful relationship with the rest of nature. To be clear, I’m not advocating a return to tribal living or to some form of animistic religion. In the wake of centuries of science and technology, it would be impossible for industrialized cultures to adopt a pre-modern understanding of the world. Nor am I suggesting that we try to define a single, one-size-fits-all worldview. Instead we must combine insights derived from science with those from wisdom traditions in order to bring alive the notion of humanity existing inside nature. This revolutionary idea can then be accommodated within a wide spectrum of worldviews, both religious and secular.

In Avatar, Cameron’s Na’vi ultimately prevail through violence, meeting force with force. However, in our search to achieve sustainability, violence is not going to win the day. Domination is the tool of the “outsider’s” perspective. The profound challenge we now face is triggering a peaceful revolution, a consciously driven transformation of mind and culture. Momentum for just such a transformation is now building around the world. But success will require that we work quickly to break free from the bonds of outsider thinking and seek sustainable alternatives that (re-)place us firmly within nature.

One of the most unrealistic aspects of Avatar is the ruthless, imperialist mindset of the invading humans. If this outsider, conqueror mentality persists, civilization as we know it likely won't survive the 21st century, let alone maintain the same outdated worldview into the 22nd Century. The destruction of Earth's living systems, on which we depend, simply won't allow it. For now at least, there are no Pandora’s available to us for pillaging (thank goodness). Our home planet, the world that birthed us over a period of almost 4 billion years, is the only one we’ve got. So we’d best concern ourselves less with alternative worlds and concentrate more on alternative perspectives.

1. New York Times, January 20, 2010, front page article by Dave Itzkoff: "You Saw What in “Avatar”? Pass Those Glasses.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Einstein's Paradox

Almost daily, we hear alarming news of ecological catastrophes. Climate change tops the list, with staccato-like reports of disappearing ice sheets, record droughts, and rising sea levels. Yet many other eco-disasters make the news cycle as well, among them disappearing fisheries, topsoil, aquifers, and rainforests. No question, humanity is in a lot of trouble just now. Over the past century, we’ve driven the living world to the ragged edge. To speak of the collapse of civilization may sound more like high drama than impending reality, particularly since things seems to be chugging along just fine at the moment. But the interwoven nature of the global economy (made evident in the recent, widespread economic “downturn”) means that the entire system--that is, civilization—is very sensitive to changes. Make no mistake: we are currently heading down a dark path. Food security in particular has the potential to lead to human suffering on a scale so vast as to be unimaginable (1).

Even more abundant in the headlines are debates over “green” solutions—nuclear versus wind power, local versus organic foods, hybrid cars versus rapid transit, cap and trade versus tax reform. Yet what if our current crisis demands far more than external remedies? What if the core of the problem isn’t “out there” in the environment, but rather inside our minds, more a matter of perception? The truth is, we have the necessary technology, know-how, and money to set humanity and the biosphere on a sustainable path (1). We simply aren’t taking the appropriate actions, as evidenced by the lack of a meaningful agreement reached by world leaders at the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen. Despite the bounty of rhetoric from governments and multi-national corporations, we are not behaving as if the planet is in peril.

In an earlier post, I argued that the single greatest obstacle to sustainability is an outdated worldview that places humanity external and superior to nature. As long as nature is “other,” composed of objects and resources rather than subjects and relatives, how can we possibly hope to establish a mutually enhancing relationship with the nonhuman world?

The most important question of the 21st Century, then, may be this:

How do we rapidly shift Western worldviews so as to re-establish humanity as a part of nature?

At the heart of this question lies a conundrum that might be called “Einstein’s Paradox.” Albert Einstein famously claimed that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Yet if our significant problems require a new way of thinking, and we remain mired in out-dated thinking, how are we to initiate the transition? The view from inside nature contrasts so fundamentally with our present worldview that the necessary transition is unlikely to occur solely among adults, at least not in the brief time available. The solution to Einstein’s Paradox, I am convinced, will be rooted in children.

Worldviews are like air, sustaining us while remaining largely invisible and unconsidered. As adults, we tend to be firmly entrenched in the dominant perspective, so much so that we often think that our way is the only way of seeing the world. When it is pointed out to us that other cultures have alternative, often radically contrary ways of understanding the world and humanity’s place within it (2), we cling to the notion that our perspective must be the best, or at least the most accurate. Unconsciously, those of us living in Western societies have erected high, defensive walls that, among other things, tend to prevent us from seeing ourselves as embedded in nature, or even feeling a sense of compassion for the nonhuman world. Of course, numerous individuals, grassroots organizations, and even some governments are establishing closer, more intimate links between humans and nature (3), with the number growing daily. To give a single stunning example, in 2008 Ecuador became the first country to grant constitutional rights to nature (4). It is this remarkable, global trend toward linking humans with nonhuman nature that gives me the most hope. Nevertheless, given the gaping human-nature chasm that remains, together with the pace of change required, the necessary shift simply cannot be realized among adults only.

Young minds possess far greater capacity to learn and embrace novel—in this case more sustainable—perspectives. Think of how easily children become fluent in new languages relative to adults. Now think about children raised on a worldview that regards humans not as conquerors of an external nature but as co-creators existing within nature.

Far from passing responsibility on to future generations, however, we must demonstrate the courage, wisdom, and foresight to cultivate the “Insider’s” perspective, at least to the degree possible. Only then will we make the required transformations in both parenting and education. Amongst the necessary changes will be frequent unplugging of our children from the virtual world, encouraging them to spend abundant time outdoors in sensuous contact with the real world. Adult mentors will be necessary to spark not only understanding but, equally important, awe and wonder. Schooling will be less about knowledge and more about wisdom, less about careers and more about living well in place. The Great Story, our epic myth, should be told and retold from childhood through adulthood, becoming our cosmology. Guided by new metaphors of nature, we must raise the next generation of children to stand on our shoulders, and give them new eyes with which to gaze far beyond our most distant horizons.

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York, 369 pp.
2. Davis, W. 2009. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. House of Anansi, Toronto, 280 pp.
3. Hawken, P. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, New York, 342 pp.
4. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/ecuador/

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Extinction of Experience

The following piece of mine appeared this past week on Edge.org, in response to John Brockman's annual question: "How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"

Like many others, my personal experience is that the internet is both the Great Source for information and the Great Distractor, fostering compulsions to stay “connected,” often at the expense of other, arguably more valuable aspects of life. I do not sense that the internet alters the way that I think as much as it does the way I work; having the Great Source close at hand is simply irresistible, and I generally keep a window open on my laptop for random searches that pop into my head.

Nevertheless, I am much less concerned about “tweeners” like me who grew up before the internet than I am with children of the internet age, so-called “Digital Natives.” I want to know how the internet changes the way they think. Although the supporting research may still be years away, it seems likely that a lifetime of daily conditioning dictated by the rapid flow of information across glowing screens will generate substantial changes in brains, and thus thinking. Commonly cited potential effects include fragmented thinking and shorter attention spans together with a concomitant reduction (let alone interest) in reflection, introspection, and in-depth thought. Another oft-noted concern is the nature of our communications, which are becoming increasingly terse and decreasingly face-to-face.

But I have a larger fear, one rarely mentioned in these discussions—the extinction of experience. This term, which comes from author Robert Michael Pyle, refers to the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Clearly, anyone who spends 10-plus hours each day with their attention focused on a screen is not devoting much time to experiencing the “real” world. More and more, it seems, real-life experience is being replaced by virtual alternatives. And, to my mind at least, this is a grave problem. Let me explain.

As the first generation to contemplate the fact that humanity may have a severely truncated future, we live at arguably the most pivotal moment in the substantial history of Homo sapiens. Decisions made and actions taken during the next generation will have an imbalanced impact on the future of humans and all other life on Earth. If we blunder onward on our present course—increasing populations, poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat destruction—we face no less than the collapse of civilization and the decimation of the biosphere. (For believers and skeptics alike, I highly recommend Lester Brown's exceptional summary of our current eco-crisis and a plan to get us out of it: Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009) Given the present dire circumstances, any new far-reaching cultural phenomenon must be evaluated in terms of its ability to help or hinder the pressing work to be done; certainly this concern applies to how the internet influences thinking.

Ecological sustainability, if it is to occur, will include greener technologies and lifestyles. In addition, however, we require a shift in worldview that re-configures our relationship with non-human nature. To give one prominent example of our current dysfunctional perspective, how are we to achieve sustainability as long as we see nature as part of the economy rather than the inverse? Instead of a collection of resources available for our exploitation, nature must become a community of relatives worthy of our respect and a teacher to whom we look for inspiration and insight. In contrast to the present day, sustainable societies will likely be founded on local foods, local materials, and local energy. They will be run by people who have a strong passion for place and a deep understanding of the needs of those places. And I see no way around the fact that this passion and understanding will be grounded in direct, firsthand experiences with those places.

My concern, then, is this: How are we to develop new, more meaningful connections to our native communities if we are staring at computer screens that connect us only to an amorphous worldwide “community?” As is evident to anyone who has stood in a forest or on a seashore, there is a stark difference between a photograph or video and the real thing. Yes, I understand the great potential for the internet to facilitate fact-finding, information sharing, and even community-building of like-minded people. I am also struck by the radical democratization of information that the internet may soon embody. But how are we to establish affective bonds locally if our lives are consumed by virtual experiences on global intermedia? What we require is uninterrupted solitude outdoors, sufficient time for the local sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures to seep into our consciousness. What we are seeing is children spending less and less time outdoors actually experiencing the real world and more and more time indoors immersed in virtual worlds.

In effect, my argument is that the internet may influence thinking indirectly through its unrelenting stranglehold on our attention and the resultant death (or at least denudation) of non-virtual experience. If we are to care about larger issues surrounding sustainability, we first must care about our local places, which in turn necessitates direct experiences in those places. As Pyle observes, “what is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”

One thing is certain. We have little time to get our act together. Nature, as they say, bats last. Ultimately, I can envision the internet as a net positive or a net negative force in the critical sustainability effort, but I see no way around the fact that any positive outcome will involve us turning off the screens and spending significant time outside interacting with the real world, in particular the nonhuman world.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nature: The Insider's View

We live at a momentous time in history punctuated by a race between two tipping points. On the one hand, anthropogenic effects such as increasing poverty, populations, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat destruction are swiftly pushing the biosphere to the brink of disaster, with no less than the collapse of civilization looming on the horizon. On the other hand, humanity is rapidly waking up to the fact that civilization in its current form is simply not viable, and that we must mobilize quickly, likely within a generation, if we are to avoid catastrophe. For now, it remains uncertain which of these tipping points will be surpassed first, but we owe it to future generations (human and nonhuman) to do everything we can to hasten the arrival of the latter. You may be surprised to learn that the external tools needed to set humanity on a new, sustainable course—including technologies, knowledge, and wealth—are already in place. The central problem in this crisis is our response, which remains sluggish. (For skeptics and non-skeptics alike, I strongly recommend Lester Brown’s updated book, Plan B 4.0, an outstanding and insightful summary of our current ecological predicament and available external solutions.) (1).

The most critical sustainability issue still to be resolved, then, is not external, but internal—a matter of perception rather than technology. The industrialized world remains crippled by an outdated worldview, one founded on a long-standing, yet erroneous assumption—the existence of humanity outside nature. Thus, for example, despite the fact that nature provides the material basis of the economy and that we clearly live on a finite planet, economists (and many others) regard the natural world as a subset of the economy and continue to speak of limitless growth. Yet clearly the opposite is true; the economy is a subset of nature, as evidenced by the fact that we are approaching or exceeding ecological (and thus economic) limits around the world. Another closely related imperative is human domination over nature, which has reduced the natural world to objects and resources (forests as board feet of lumber, oceans as commercial fisheries). Perceiving ourselves as outside of, and superior to, nature, we feel entitled to exploit natural “resources” at will. Emotionally isolated from the nonhuman world, we are left adrift in a sea of objects without any meaningful home, let alone a desire to protect or nurture that home. In addition to new technologies, economies, and lifestyles, then, the sustainability revolution must include a radical shift in worldviews, one that reconfigures the human-nature relationship.

How did we get so far off track? How did nature become “other,” something to be dominated and exploited? The human-nature divide dates back more than 2000 years, closely tied to the development of Western civilization (2). Early Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, while regarding nature as a vast living organism, nevertheless separated humanity from the rest of creation, citing analytical reason as the critical distinguishing feature. Later, Judeo-Christian traditions carried this idea further, positioning humans at the apex of creation, with divinely decreed dominion over nature. Suddenly, the natural world resided at the bottom of a “Great Chain of Being,” with humanity positioned at the halfway point between beasts and angels. Nature in these religious conceptions was sometimes conceived as evil, forcing humans to repress their “lower,” animal nature in order to realize a “higher, celestial stature. Increasingly, the notion of conquering, exploiting, and enslaving nature became engrained in the Western mind.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, human dominion over nature became secularized, now driven by the scientific revolution. No longer linked through a Great Chain, a conceptual chasm formed between humans and nature. Such luminaries as Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and Bacon cast off lingering fears of divine retribution and transformed nature into dead matter—thoughtless, clock-like machines to be exploited for great gain. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, buoyed by new technologies together with unbridled confidence in reason and science, completed the disenchantment of nature and expanded the conqueror mindset. Interestingly, a more secularized version of the Great Chain of Being returned into vogue at this time, sowing the seeds of what would later become the science of ecology. Yet the gulf between nature and humanity remained largely intact through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sustained by the twin notions of inexorable progress and civilization’s triumph over nature.

If no counter-revolution had occurred promoting intimate links between humanity and nature, I would hold out little hope for our ability to reverse the current slide toward civilizational collapse. Yet just such a counter movement has been underway since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beginning with philosophers like John Ray, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza. During the eighteenth century, the Romantic Movement picked up the torch; poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake resisted the hegemony of analytical reason and objectivity, pointing instead to the power of emotion and subjectivity, personal experience and imagination. During the nineteenth century, philosophers and scientists such as Hegel, Thoreau, Darwin, and Huxley argued convincingly for a deep continuity between nature and humanity, a trend continued in the twentieth century by Muir, Leopold, Carson, Berry, and many others. Like their Romantic forerunners, the latter group emphasized the role of subjective experience, emphasizing the importance of awe, wonder, and reverence. Within science, the notion of Earth as a living organism has come almost full circle; once advocated by the ancient Greeks, today this idea is put forth by some proponents (though, I should add, not by most scientists) of the Gaia Hypothesis.

So now it’s our turn. We must complete this counter-revolution, reversing the multi-millennial mindset of Western cultures by reinserting humanity inside nature. We must learn to see ourselves not as conquerors of an external nature but as co-creators existing within nature. The “Insider” view is now strongly supported by sciences ranging from physics and chemistry to ecology and evolutionary biology. And it is bolstered by a growing numbers of philosophers, educators, nature writers, spiritual organizations, and grassroots movements (3). Only by completing this transition in perspective can we hope to accomplish the “Great Turning,” moving from an "industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society" (4). Our efforts can be aided by learning from indigenous peoples, who have always considered humanity to be part of nature (5). Importantly, this fundamental shift can be realized within a broad spectrum of religious and secular worldviews, so there is no need to advocate a single, one-size-fits-all perspective.

One way or another, dramatic change is coming soon. The world’s top scientists are in agreement that, if we blunder onward on our present destructive path, the near-term consequences will include decimation of the biosphere and the breakdown of civilization, with unthinkable human suffering. Conversely, if we mobilize quickly, likely within a generation, we can find a new, sustainable path. In addition to implementing new technologies and behaviors, getting the “inside view” of nature will be an essential element in this Great Work of our time.

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York, 369 pp.
2. Marshall, P. 1992. Nature’s Web: An Exploration of Ecological Thinking. Simon & Schuster, London, 513 pp.
3. Hawken, P. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, New York, 342 pp.
4. Macy, J. 2007. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 206 pp.
5. Nelson, M. K. (ed.). 2008. Original Instructions; Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Company, New York, 384 pp.