What Makes Us Care About Nature?

Olympic 2
I‘ve written before about how we can’t expect people to care about nature and wilderness, or anything else, unless they’ve experienced it first-hand. We may appreciate things intellectually (global warming, the war in Darfur, poverty, the need for security against violence) but we will not generally fight for them unless we relate to them emotionally, viscerally. We have to experience them. Or do we?

I’ve just been reading a fifteen-page list of environmental education activities taking place in schools across Canada. The objective is to get kids to care about nature, and about global warming, and about ‘the environment’ (as if that were somehow something apart from us) by getting them to experience it first-hand. It’s a long list. Yet while the kids talk a good story (the young are suckers for good propaganda, and the education system is expert at it), and say they would vote Green in an election, as soon as they reach voting age they tend to vote very much like everyone else. The field trips are fun, but the level of awareness of environmental facts and realities is as abysmal among this age group (per my own experience and some recent polls) as any other.

I’ve also been talking a lot with business executives, and come to a remarkable discovery — they care about the environment, and about global warming, but not because they think it has anything to do with the bottom line of the business (and, sorry, they don’t care about the ‘triple bottom line’ — financial + social + environmental performance), but rather because they feel responsible to their children and grandchildren. This seems to be true whether these children or grandchildren are yet of the age when they can chastise their elders for social and environmental irresponsibility, or whether they have if they are old enough to do so. It is instinctive, emotional, visceral. It seems to be true even for those who do not, or not yet, have children. They will acknowledge it is an issue that keeps them awake at night, but also acknowledge they are not (and may never) be prepared to compromise their companies’ profitability to institute socially and environmentally responsible programs. Though they wouldn’t vote against them if they had company.

Canadians, when asked, say that the environment is the most important issue facing the country today. Yet their votes (40%, a record high, for the Kyoto-abrogating Conservative government; recent provincial elections where the Greens ran in every constituency but could muster only as much as 8% of the vote) suggest they consider this a low-priority issue.

A few years ago I was at a weekend retreat with some of the brightest and most creative people in the US. They were almost all very progressive in their thinking (and universally loathed George Bush) but they clearly cared more about immediate personal political and social issues (the Iraq War and its threat to the US economy and security; the large-scale erosion of civil liberties; domestic poverty, the abysmal state of the education and healthcare systems) than about ‘the environment’. They claimed to care about global warming and urban sprawl and pollution and garbage and the destruction of old growth forests, but these were largely intellectual concerns. I got the strong sense that they saw them as failures of technological imagination, innovation, and creeping corporatism, that could be ‘fixed’ through a combination of technology and having a political progressive in the White House. Even An Inconvenient Truth was appreciated as an act of political rectitude and outrage against conservatism more than anything else, and the fact that that show was virtually devoid of any solutions to the problems it pointed out was not considered a serious matter.

So what’s going on here? Most North Americans live in cities, and their idea of nature is a park or a summer cottage on the lake or a camping trip. So nature to them is a tourist destination, like an overgrown theme park, a recreation, or an abstraction. They know about global warming but their spending and voting shows they don’t think it is a priority, or even something they are responsible or empowered to do anything about. They think government and/or technology can fix it, if they are inclined or pressed to do so. Even though everything they are taught shows that this is untrue.

What’s more, most North Americans don’t really want to hear about environmental or social issues or problems. At the end of the day they want to relax, or to escape, and they don’t want to feel guilty about it. So environmental magazines and websites and blogs can’t compete with the political and technological and entertainment ones (and the most popular environmental blogs are of the feel-good ‘new technology will save us’ variety). When it comes to the environment, we mostly want to be reassured that someone else can and will look after the ‘problem’.

All this started me thinking about why I care so much, at such a ‘deeper green’, emotional level, than most people.

I grew up in a small city, on a small lot. I went to the nearby park sometimes, but the park was small and had few trees. In my childhood I didn’t really care about zoos. We had a cat, who I loved, and cried when one day (I was around twelve) he never returned home. I was deathly afraid of large dogs and (for some reason) beetles. We sometimes rented a cottage for two weeks in the summer, but I was more interested in baseball cards and comic books than the beauty of nature.

Yet even at this young age there was something inside me that, I suppose, destined me to care about the natural world. I remember being upset about finding dead birds, and about the devastation that army tent caterpillars did to the neighbourhood trees. I was then (and still am) irrational about cruelty to animals — one of the two fights in my life was with a kid I caught trying to hurt birds with a slingshot, and when adults would make jokes about ‘kicking the dog’ I would walk out, furious. Still, although I started to accompany my father on fishing trips when the locations were remote and gave me the chance to go for walks in the woods (while he fished), it didn’t seem to occur to me that my father’s catch-and-release was cruel recreation.

By the time I was in my late teens I had become a largely uninformed but ardent environmentalist. I fought against boreal forest hydro developments and arctic pipelines, and worked for environmentalist parties and candidates. I recall speaking to a senior minister in the Trudeau cabinet about the damage to caribou migration and the danger of permafrost melt posed by the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and was told ‘Who cares about the permafrost?’ When I replied that I did, and I didn’t understand why he didn’t, he was hustled away by an aide before he could engage in a fruitless debate. I protested against environmentally destructive development on-campus in university. I wrote to Paul Ehrlich about The Population Bomb asking (already) What can we do?

Then, in the mid-seventies (and my mid-twenties) my environmentalism went into a twenty-year period of dormancy. I have no idea why, except perhaps that it didn’t seem as if my angst was getting me anywhere, and I was tired of being hurt by every new atrocity, local and global, being reported. My membership in Greenpeace and Ontario Nature lapsed.

And then in my mid-forties, in the mid-nineties, I rejoined the movement. No idea what precipitated this, except perhaps more time to think, revulsion and rage over the explosion of factory farms, and the fact that I moved to a house in a wetland area. All of a sudden I just had to walk outside the door to be in another, uncivilized world. In my back yard and the 1200-acre conservation area behind it there was virtually no evidence of other human life. I could watch deer, wolves, foxes, beavers, muskrat, and a plethora of birds sitting in the middle of my yard. Yet I suspect it was my reinvigorated passion for wild places that led me to move here, rather than the other way around. I just discovered my place, my home, the place I was meant to live.

And since then I have read some three hundred books and articles on natural philosophy and human culture, so now my beliefs are informed and modestly better articulated. But I haven’t really changed. I’m still the guy who grew up in the city. What made me care about nature? What makes us (some of us anyway) really care about nature, wilderness, the welfare of wild creatures and wild places, places that, for the most part, we have never been and never seen?

Derrick Jensen, in A Language Older Than Words says:

If someone were to ask me what to do about the problems facing the world today I would say: Listen. If you listen carefully enough you will in time know exactly what to do.

Perhaps that, more than instinct or study or experience, is what makes us love nature. When I was very young I was carefree, a dreamer, and because I didn’t have any interest in the world of adults, perhaps I listened instead to the voices inside and outside me. And then after two decades of deafness, I started to pay attention and listen again, and reconnect in some profoundly emotional and physical and sensual way with all-life-on-Earth. I don’t think it’s emotional sensitivity. I don’t think it’s knowing (what’s happening or what’s right or what’s possible).

My good friends who are preoccupied with political matters and think a Democratic president will make a difference, or who are enamoured of technological solutions to all things, are not stupid or ignorant or insensitive. I find their optimism inspiring. But I sense that, in a very real sense, they live in a different world from me. They can’t hear, feel, sense, instinctively know what I know. And likewise I don’t understand their world, I don’t feel it.

I don’t think this is something that can be taught, to children or anyone else. Probably doesn’t do any harm to try though, I guess. And while the books and articles in my reading list helped me understand what I was listening to, make sense of it, there was a time when I could have read any of these and they wouldn’t have meant a thing to me. As Daniel Quinn says (also talking about the importance of listening) in Beyond Civilization:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time.

Yet I think it is in all of us to listen, to hear the voice of all-life-on-Earth, to become a part, to reconnect, to fall under the spell of the sensuous. For twenty years I became deaf to it, it stayed inside me, waiting to re-emerge.

It is in our bones, our DNA. No experience required. We are who we are, and at heart we are all wild creatures, in love with this wild planet and every living thing within it. It is just a matter of time before each of us is ready to listen.Ready to come home.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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5 Responses to What Makes Us Care About Nature?

  1. lugon says:

    Funny – when I started reading your article I remembered Quinn’s picture which I’ve found for you. It’s called “The Fence”: https://www.newtribalventures.com/ntv/market/moreinfo.cfm?Product_ID=75

  2. lugon says:

    Looking for recent Quinn’s stuff there’s these two things:- http://www.ishmael.org/Education/Writings/ecoGeek_interview.shtml– Quinn’s recomendation to watch this: http://www.whatawaytogomovie.com/

  3. Ed Diril says:

    I agree with you that intellectual understanding is not enough although in most cases it is often the first step. It generates the first sparks of interest.When we relate to something empathically, it is much more and I think it has to happen for someone to be able to say “I get it!”. The effects of a first hand experience cannot be substituted by reading, thinking or even seeing someone else indulge in an experience. After the first hand experience, one might still not get it. Like you said, this experience will stay dormant until (and if ever) the person is ready.So it seems that the best we can do is to prepare the circumstances which allow others to go through the first hand experiences of interest. Plus, band together those who already get it and are ready for action.

  4. I think experience does play a role in your beliefs, and least, that’s how it feels to me. I grew up in the country, lived in the city for a while but ended up living in the north, and even now live in a small city, close to nature.I have been an environmentalist all of my life. I actually worked for the Green Party one campaign, for Glen Staples in Calgary Centre in the early 1980s. I have been a member, off and on, of organizations like Greenpeace, the WCWC, and others. I am still an environmentalist to this day.That said, I won’t be voting Green – haven’t for a while now, and don’t see it happening in the near future. The Green Party seems to me these days to be almost a branch of the Conservative Party. I don’t see the Greens as working effectively for environmental issues.

  5. NoOneYouKnow says:

    Thanks for your post. Generally, I’m a cautious optimist, but on the long-term prospects for our environment, not so much. Many millions of people listen, or can be brought to listen, one hopes, before it’s too late. But I believe that about 30% of humanity will not listen, due to selfishness, fear, greed, rage, or a number of other causes. Much of what we call modern life is designed to give us cheaper, shinier, easier things to listen to than nature and ourselves, and a vast number of people will refuse to hear anything but what they want to hear until nature, in some way, makes itself heard in a manner that could well be humanity’s destruction. If we were a better species, we would put our listeners in charge and allow them to take the actions necessary to prevent (further) environmental degradation. Sadly, the people who lead us are most often the opposite: The people who won’t listen, who don’t care about anything but themselves. I pray I’m wrong, but I believe mankind will continue on its self-destructive path until brought up short by nature. Some of us will likely survive that time, if only for a while, or maybe mankind will somehow see the catastrophe coming and prevent it, but in the end it won’t matter. Whether we’re here or not, Earth will continue on creating life, even if we’ve poisoned it with radiation. I take comfort knowing that in a hundred years or a thousand, nature will have spread again the quiet that allows thinking creatures to listen — even if there are none to hear it.

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