We have many myths about nature. Most of them are about ‘wildness’ — savagery, hardship, suffering. Most of our stories about nature are of the ‘Man vs. Nature’ variety, about ‘survival in the wild’, as if that were some extraordinary thing. We build these myths to keep people from running away from our well-meaning but damaged, terrible, unsustainable culture. Richard Manning in Against the Grain has just exploded another of the myths about our culture: He provides a compelling argument that the Great Wall of China, a work of staggering and gruelling human labour visible with a telescope from the moon, was not built, as we were told, to keep the Northern hunter-gatherer cultures (the ‘Mongol Hordes’) out, but rather to keep the stooped, slave labour in the ‘new’ civilization culture’s peasants in. If you really believe nature is savage, turn off the hysterical nature documentaries and read Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, about how, even in Northern winters, even the tiniest ‘wild’ animals live joyful, carefree, comfortable lives. And then read David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous to find out how you, too, can reconnect with lovely, peaceful, easy, sustainable nature.
The myths we teach our impressionable children about nature, from dragon fables to Old Yeller, are usually about nature’s terror and the need to defend and return back ‘home’ to our ‘safe’ civilization. There is an astonishing amount of animal cruelty in children’s stories, and it is an extremely predatory and desensitizing indoctrination technique. We reinforce these dreadful lies about nature’s savagery by sending our children to under-supervised day-care operations called Summer Camps, which, despite their locations and stated objectives, are not at all about nature, but rather deplorable and usually incompetent immersion courses in social skills. At least the British are honest enough to do this without pretext of it being a ‘natural’ experience: Their social indoctrination is called Boarding School and occurs principally indoors. Whatever its intention, the principal effect of Summer Camp is to untether children from their parents’ protection and their need for privacy, and force them to ‘get along’ with others, find their place in the social pecking order of their ‘peers’. For the shy, the weak, the uncoordinated, the physically and emotionally scarred (and that’s most children) it can be living hell. For psychopathic children and predatory adults, its lack of supervision provides the ideal environment for honing their manipulation skills on unprotected and vulnerable victims. Whatever this may be, it is certainly no way to introduce a child to nature.
Even psychopathic adults use the ‘natural experience’ cover to prey upon weaker adults. This activity was most famously depicted in the film White Mile, where the aggressive company CEO (played by Alan Alda) bullies younger staff who want to ‘get ahead’ to go on a ‘character-building’ white-water rafting trip where they are absolutely at his mercy, and where nature is set up as the straw-man enemy. This psychological brutality is also evident in many cults which use social isolation and deprivation in a pseudo-‘natural’ setting to break down resistance to the cult leader’s propaganda. I recently witnessed a plane-load of teenagers returning from a six-month ‘working field trip’ billeted in peasants’ homes in Paraguay — these kids were raw with emotion and filled with horror and loathing at the thought of returning ‘home’ and ‘abandoning’ the poor Paraguayan families who had opened their homes and hearts to them. Absolute gut-wrenching culture shock. We humans are so easy to socially recondition, so vulnerable to programming and re-programming! Our psyches are so fragile that, especially with the young, we must take great care not to tear them even by the simple act of exposing them to new ideas. This is very dangerous stuff. Damn our adaptability.
Not surprising, then, that most people view nature with great fear, as something to be conquered or survived. Most of us have no alternative experience of it. And not surprising that so many of the well-intended ‘communing with nature’ alternative living experiments have collapsed or been hijacked by psychopaths or megalomaniacs.
If we were to start with young people, how could we expose them ‘naturally’ to nature: Teaching them gently the Spell of the Sensuous without so unhinging their psyches that they would be incapable of returning to civilized life and working within it, and without exploiting their ideological vulnerability? (I know, I’m a hopeless liberal — I refuse to use propaganda to advance the cause).
Because if we don’t show them nature, what possible hope is there for our world when we can only romanticize (or demonize), idealize, try to imagine a natural way to live and love and be? We learn (especially as children) what we’re shown, not what we’re told. There are almost no remaining models of natural life to show them, to correct the entrenched, neolithic misperception of nature as something brutal, savage, dangerous, frightening, threatening, hard, and apart. As James Taylor puts it in his song Gaia, we are taught, and left with no alternative but to:
Turn away from your animal kind,
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind,
Leave cold cruel Mother Earth behind — GAIA,
As if you were your own creation,
As if you were the chosen nation,
And the world around you just a rude and dangerous invasion.
I was at a conference a week ago with some of the most creative and intelligent people on the face of the Earth, but when I talked to them of the importance of wilderness, these mostly urban geniuses had no idea what I was getting at — they could not imagine what I meant.
I think we need to abandon the route of in-class nature documentaries and the one-day (or six-month) field trips (and ‘summer camps’), and instead invent and design something completely new: Model Intentional Communities that will give children and adults the opportunity to rediscover nature, and our true nature, first hand. Just as we save endangered species and try to build their populations back up in ‘natural’ settings, we should try to recreate, and show, alternative human cultures, so that people brought up in our monolithic and troubled culture can be exposed to people living in balance with wilderness. Not in order to learn how to ‘survive’ it, but to learn how to be part of and at peace with it. Glenn Parton talks about this in his essay Humans-In-The-Wilderness.
I advocate the development of a human lifestyle in which people live in small villages sparsely scattered through a wilderness environment. Although this framework or groundplan is borrowed from aboriginal peoples, it is far more flexible than has been thought. We can devolve or scale-down modern civilization to closely fit ancient land use patterns without returning to the Stone Age.
So we’re not talking about a back-to-the-land commune that refuses to use technology and shuns the ‘civilized’ world, but rather a series of communities of, say, 100-150 people each, plus perhaps another 20 guests at any one time who would stay no longer than a month, and bring in new ideas and take away their learning of another way to live. These model communities would meld the best of do-more-with-less innovation and technology (the Internet, solar energy, hydroponics etc.) with the best of natural community (zero growth, 100% sustainability, everything recycled, no pollution, no hierarchy, LETS money, no private property or separate ‘family’ dwellings etc.) These communities would ‘use’ only a tiny proportion of ‘their’ land for human purposes, leaving the rest as wilderness for other creatures, for learning and exploration and discovery and reflection and connection but not exploitation. Their population density would vary depending on the carrying capacity of the area, but on average would probably not exceed one person per four acres (a globally sustainable level). Everyone would live as part of a self-sufficient, self-managed and self-selected community, and everyone would also live on the doorstep of wilderness. The people would work only as hard as they needed to, to be comfortable — perhaps an hour per day each (as primitive man did according to revisionist history, and certainly enough in a modern egalitarian society with the benefits of today’s technology). The rest of the day could be spent in leisure, in learning, in discovery, in making love (possibly, as Glenn suggests, with more than one partner, at the collective discretion of each community), in art, in writing or other expression — whatever each individual wanted to do. Members would be free to travel, and through the Internet and communications media and visitors there would be lots of interaction with other Model Intentional Communities and with the ‘outside world’, but if they stayed away too long they would be asked to give up their membership in the community.
What would be needed to make this work would be someone to donate the land, without recourse or obligation, and some self-selection mechanism for determining who the members of the communities would be. Building on a small standard set of inviolable principles to ensure egalitarianism, no-growth, and wilderness protection, each community could develop its own rules and code of conduct (or operate without rules, if it so chose). It would probably take some time, and learning from failure, before these model communities would stabilize and be ready to accept visitors — their only obligation to the civilized world.
Now imagine a young person exposed to such a community for a month in adolescence or high school. She would probably find it fun (certainly more than classwork, anyway), charming, stimulating, but not appealing enough to want to stay. But when she graduated and realized the devil’s bargain of civilization — the trade-off of ecocide and wage slavery and emotional suffocation in return for ‘financial security’, she might well decide then to join an existing Model Intentional Community, or start her own, spreading out and refusing to buy the crappy consumer products and over-priced postage stamp building lots that drive the current economy. In short, she, and many or most or all of her similarly-exposed classmates, might walk away — millions each year, until diverse Model Intentional Communities flourish across the globe, and the old economy, with no ‘consumers’ left to sustain it, crumbles away, and with it the old politics and the old social rules and the old hierarchies and the old education systems, and a new culture that values wilderness and well-being rises in its place.
That’s my dream. It cannot work, of course, in a world of six billion people, let alone the 12-14 billion we are likely to see by the end of the century. But if we show people another model now, a better way to live, maybe it’s not impossible to believe that people will willingly, eagerly reduce their family sizes to no more than one child per female adult, so that, within a couple of centuries, our population is down below one billion and we can all live this way. We could therefore do what early ‘civilizing’ cultures like the Anasazi and Incans perhaps did, when, after experimenting with urban civilized culture, they suddenly and inexplicably walked away from their cities and returned to a non-hierarchical and natural life.
What a valuable education that could turn out to be.
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Dying of Despair
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What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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A Better Way to Work
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May I Ask a Question?
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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Too Far Ahead
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All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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Healing From Ourselves
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Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
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Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
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Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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