We Are Not Defending Nature We Are Nature Defending Itself
‘We need a revolution of consciousness.’ tweet
If you feel like this idea touches on something profound, yet at the same time it also feels a bit vague, you’re not alone. It sounds catchy, but what does it really mean?
We can all hope for a critical mass of people to reach some new state of awareness, which will allow us to suddenly start living together on this planet in a better way, but for many this seems unrealistic at best. That’s why I’m focused on finding what the first critical step might be. Perhaps there is one single change we can make, a change that is accessible to everyone, that will allow us to finally begin the process of leading ourselves out of the mess we’re in.
If it really is a revolution of consciousness we need, it might be a revolution in the most literal sense. A coming-full-circle. A return to a way of perceiving ourselves that has largely been lost: the idea that we are not only a part of nature, we are nature.
A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism […] We are one planet.’
– Carl Sagan tweet
How our current worldview fails us
Environmental lawyer and founder of the World Resources Institute, Gus Speth once famously said:
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy […] and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.’
– Gus Speth tweet
When we hear the words ‘spiritual and cultural transformation’ it is hardly surprising that science has a hard time with it. The very word ‘spiritual’ tends to cause the materialist, empirical mind to contract, not to mention the fact that one could spend days researching what the word ‘culture’ really means without finding an answer that everyone could agree on.
Speth’s idea that a ‘spiritual & cultural transformation’ is the answer to our woes would be easy to dismiss if it wasn’t for the fact that so many others have pointed to this idea again and again. Frijof Capra, for example, has spent a lifetime exploring the the boundary between empirical science and eastern philosophy.
‘If you follow the river of these crises upstream you meet a crisis of consciousness, a crisis of perception. A crisis of how we see ourselves and our role in this living planet.’
– Frijof Capra tweet
A crisis of perception
When we replace Speth’s words ‘spiritual transformation’ with Capra’s ‘transformation of perception’ we start to move into a territory where both the spiritually minded and the more rationalist, materialist world-view can meet and find common ground.
Einstein was a great example of a scientist who managed to bridge these two worlds, and he perhaps expressed the need for a transformation of consciousness or perception best when he said ‘we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’; and also ‘we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if [humanity] is to survive.’
Remembering what we have always known
Described in countless ways from practically every indigenous culture, this idea of perceiving ourselves as part of the living biosphere is not a new idea by any means. This worldview then carried through from animistic cultures to eastern philosophy, where the idea is prevalent that the individual self, paradoxically, is the greater whole. This concept is eloquently expressed in the Alan Watts lectures ‘The World as Self’ Part 1 & Part 2.
The reintroduction of this way of perceiving the world to the western mind arguably started to emerge with the work of philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead with his ‘philosophy of organism‘ and Maurice Merleau-Ponty who made claims that a more accurate way of perceiving is to see the world outside ourselves as part of our own body. By far the most well known exploration of perceiving ourselves as part of a larger organism, in modern times, is the more scientifically focused Gaia Hypothesis from James Lovelock, later refined to his Gaia Theory.
From interconnectedness to wholeness
Many of us have heard or read statements like DaVinci’s ‘learn how to see, realise that everything connects to everything else’ or John Muir’s ‘when we try to pick out anything, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’. We tend not to struggle with ideas like these now that we live in a world where profound interconnectedness is no longer an abstract concept. Our recent jump in communications technology makes this way of perceiving the world an everyday experience.
Compare this to the western mind at the very beginning of the electric-powered era. We can imagine people from this time struggling to grasp a verbal explanation of what we now know as the internet. Comparatively, in present times, we are primed to make the leap from our current experience and understanding of interconnectedness to a next level of awareness. This is a step that only a few generations before, may not have been able to happen on a mass scale. Our profoundly interconnected world can now act as a springboard to the ‘substantially new manner of thinking’ Einstein was referring to.
[We need to shift to] a worldview where my sense of self and my sense of rest-of-universe are not fundamentally separate concepts… [to realise] that I wouldn’t exist without oxygen. At all. I wouldn’t exist without the plants that make the oxygen. I wouldn’t [exist] without the bugs and the fungus that make the plants work to make the oxygen. I am not an individual …[though I have some individual properties].’
– Daniel Schmachtenberger, evolutionary philosopher and social engineer tweet
Cells remembering ‘we are not just part of the body, we are the body’
One analogy that can be helpful is for us to imagine what would happen if cells in the body for some reason became unaware that they are in fact part of a body and started to consider themselves separate. We might find them reproducing endlessly taking whatever resources they need, without regard for the wider organism. It’s easy for us humans to imagine blood cells, for example, falling under this delusion just because they are not fixed to one place and can move around. If we wish to understand why our species has become such a destructive force on this planet, we perhaps need to look no further than this delusion.
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach an attainable measure of peace of mind.
– Albert Einstein, 12 February, 1950 Letter tweet
If Einstein was alive today I like to think that, considering the current circumstances, he might have revised this statement to say: ‘the striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of humanity. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach an attainable measure of peace of mind as well as peace from the destruction of our world’.
While this cancerous way of looking at ourselves described above may be stark, what is ultimately inspiring and empowering is that it only takes a shift in self-perception, a shift in how we define our own identity, for us to rejoin the wider organism and start moving towards right relationship.
We need to give birth to a new humanity that sees itself again as part of the community of life [… which] in a nutshell, is a regenerative community. We need to rejoin that community.’
– Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures tweet
‘We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself’
It’s important to acknowledge that we are not simply remembering that we are all cells in the same body. We are being reminded by other cells who managed to maintain that original awareness, despite the sickness of separation-based-consciousness that is decimating our planet right now.
The title of this article is a prime example. In February 2019, this short statement from members of the Resistencia Indigena (made up of many Indigenous groups from the Amazon basin), was rendered into art by artist and activist Mundano. The artwork went viral and was seen by millions of people all over the world (and is the feature image of this article).
When they defend their lands and scream ‘demarcation’ they are not defending only their culture and their own interests, for they preserve nature and we are all part of it.’
– Thiago Leite, aka Mundano, Brazilian artist and activist tweet
Humanity’s need for a better story
Humans have evolved with storytelling as one of the primary methods of transmitting important information, both to each other and to future generations. For many indigenous cultures story was, and still is, both lore and law. It’s through these oldest ways of communicating (story, song, dance and ritual) that humans, still to this day, receive information most deeply. If we are to survive the coming challenges we must use the power of storytelling to create a narrative for our future that we can be inspired by.
Lifelong environmental campaigner Jane Goodall recently shared what she sees as a vitally important lesson for younger generations:
The suggestion from Carl Sagan and many others that we can choose to perceive both the biosphere and ourselves as a single organism may be the core narrative we need to move through our current challenges into a healthier world.
The fact is that we can read a book or watch a film and be profoundly affected by it, even as we know that it’s actually a piece of fiction. Whether you believe that we are literally part of the Earth, or you simply see this idea as useful a metaphor, makes no difference to its power as a more helpful story for humanity.
As we shift to associating our personal identity with our wider surroundings, we come to care for our environment as we would care for ourselves; and there is nothing this world needs right now more than that.
If you’d like to support frontline indigenous action
Indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population, however they protect 80% of global biodiversity. Supporting indigenous people on the front line is one of the most powerful ways you can help protect the Earth’s remaining ecosystems.