10. Killing Nature in the Mind: Michael Fendley 2021

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I am lucky enough to look out on this from my loungeroom window every day. These great rock ranges began forming 400 million years ago and Mt Abrupt’s obdurate slab face mocks my petty existence. I suppose I should be angry about this, feel slighted, but instead I feel a sense of wonder and joy:  I experience, as early Tasmanian naturalist Kate Cowle so nicely put it at the turn of the last century, “That silent outreach of the soul toward eternal beauty”11.

In the past, indeed for most of my life, I have thought that this reaching out, this seeking to connect with Nature was the key to understanding and valuing Nature, but now I am not so sure. It’s not that I don’t see this embrace as desirable, perhaps even necessary, it’s that I no longer think it is the critical limiting factor. Too often have I seen people immersed – either physically or mentally – in Nature and having little or no regard for its health, its protection, or its future. These people seem to be unable to see anything but themselves, to appreciate the ‘other’, to wonder. Their venture into Nature is an expedition to subsume or displace the other with over-weaning hubris; to name, claim and own. The absurdity of such a venture should be dashed against the great rocks of Mt Abrupt, swept away in the eons of geological cycles, the kaleidoscope of biodiversity, the millions of years of evolution, but no, it is as strong as it ever was and appears to have an ever-increasing following on both the left and the right and across races.

This reduction of the world to just us, this refusal to acknowledge the intrinsic other of Nature will lead to its destruction every bit as finally as any bulldozer, shotgun or match- stick can.

I wrote the following article as a response to the above, as a plea for Nature and the human mind, for a desperate hanging onto – as Richard Flanagan said – “a larger sense of what the world is”.

 

 Killing Nature in the Mind

 While the external reality for Nature could hardly be worse – the populations of the world’s vertebrates halved in the last 40 years1 and climate change building like a tsunami – our response, extraordinarily, has not been to protect and resist, nor to grieve, but largely to deny Nature and align its remnants with our wants and egos. In this tragic ‘Worlds contracted thus’, the world is a farm, and ever was, and ever should be; a conceptualisation as breathtaking in its arrogance as it is shocking in its small-mindedness.

I have written previously2 about the endless dance of humans ‘in’ and ‘out’ of Nature: from being apart and a part of Nature; from extrinsic blindness, to wonderment at Nature’s intrinsic mystery. Throughout history it has delighted, terrified and fascinated us, but rarely have we been positioned so far to the end of the spectrum, so far towards the extrinsic and distant end (see diagram ‘The Diversity of the Nature-Human Relationship’, Section 1, ‘Introduction’), and, perversely, at precisely the time when a more rounded, respectful and reverential understanding is required as a matter of the greatest urgency.

Several lifetimes would not be long enough to chart all the movements of humans in the human-Nature relationship, but some significant milestones may indicate how unusual is our current position.

Hunter-Gatherer societies generally exhibited a strong, perhaps indivisible, bond with the natural world and any notion of a division between people and Nature would have been seen as strange or even ridiculous. This said, such an understanding does not necessarily lead to a strong conservation ethic as it can be tied to a somewhat ruthless utilitarianism that consumes Nature to the limit of available technology and population. Tim Flannery was shocked by the lack of any notion of cruelty by New Guinea Highlanders as they boiled honeyeaters alive for food3, and New Zealand’s recently arrived Maoris exterminated the nine species of Moa living on the islands within a hundred years or so between 1300 and 1400 A.D.4 It is only when these societies have a strong spiritual or cultural superstructure, a relationship with the natural world mediated through animism or similar, that Nature can be perceived sufficiently as the ‘other’, and that other as worthy of respect.

The First Agricultural Revolution distanced – to some extent – humans from the full diversity of Nature, and agricultural practices were seen, as often as not, as oppositional to natural forces, rather than in concert with them.

This ambiguous position is enlarged upon in The Bible where the natural world and Garden of Eden are a separate creation, made by God, but gifted to humans. This separateness is exaggerated by the acquisition of consciousness, the Fall and eviction from the Garden of Eden, but this is, thankfully, tempered, at least in part, by notions of care, respect and stewardship brought about by St Francis and others. It is fair to say, however, that consumption triumphed over conservation through the following centuries, right up until the time of the gentlemen naturalists and Enlightenment scientists (e.g. Banks, Hooker, Humboldt and Darwin), Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley), and Transcendental ‘mystics’ and Nature-writers of the USA (Muir, Thoreau, Emerson) of the 18th and 19th c.

This movement celebrated a separate, distinct Nature, a Nature of awe and wonder, and, most critically, of intrinsic worth. We did not have to be a part of Nature for it to be of value; we did not have to consume it for it to become real. It was by and of itself, whether created by a god or gods or by enormous scientific processes.

Much of modern Western environmentalism grew from this base with the creation of the first national parks in the late 19th century (e.g. Yellowstone in the U.S. and Mt Buffalo in Australia) along with the commencement of Nature ‘appreciation’ groups, such as the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria and the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union.

This movement was powerful, but by no means universal, even in the Western World. A number of European countries maintained a much more utilitarian view of Nature, seen as a sort of tabula rasa until humans intervene; a rejection of intrinsic worth. Much of Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and France reflect this other understanding, exemplified by Miriam Darlington in her book ‘Owl Sense’5 when she goes to France to try to see a Pygmy Owl and her French guide instructs her to hide her binoculars and bird books under the seat of her car because if seen by French hunters, they would invariably be vandalised and smashed, along with the windows of the car. Nature is for consumption, not contemplation!

Where does this leave us in the present day? What does current Australian society think about the natural world? I would argue there are three ‘camps’, two of them extensions from the past and a new camp or perception that has arisen in the last 20 years. The problem is that two of these three groups virtually deny a concept of a natural world, its intrinsic existence, killing Nature in the mind and leaving nothing behind but ourselves.

The first group hardly needs elaboration, it is so ubiquitous: modern humanity living many removes from the natural world, hardly aware of the seasons or cycles, of plants or birds, of drought or rain. Air-conditioned, enclosed, removed, this group has little knowledge of the outside or Nature beyond documentaries on TV, and this great gulf of ‘apartness’ leads to a commensurate lack of awareness and concern for Nature beyond the occasional simple sentimentality or demand for consumptive needs, such as space to ride the jetski or water for the spa. This group is as large as it ever was and is probably growing larger.

The second, ‘historical’ group is, as mentioned, descended from the Enlightenment scientists, naturalists and Romantic poets, but unlike the first group, it is shrinking rapidly and is a very small group indeed in contemporary Australia. This camp understands the complexity of both human connection and distance from Nature, but has as its most distinguishing characteristic a deep appreciation of the intrinsic reality of the natural world. This acknowledgement, even celebration, of ‘the other’ is profoundly unpopular in the modern world, as it runs head-on into the rampant narcissism and individualism of early 21st century capitalism. The individual’s wants and needs are sacrosanct and we have installed ourselves as God. If there is anything beyond us, then it is merely to serve as a vassal to our desires, and Nature is no exception. Strangely, in such an aggressively secular age, this takes us back almost full circle to Genesis, the creation of the world and human dominion over it.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the second school of thought is under siege and on the retreat against the new ‘religion’ of self, growth and consumption, but it has been weakened further by the creation of a third group or understanding which, ironically, was established, at least in part, to try to push back against the extreme separateness and destructiveness of late capitalist societies.

The answer was seen to be to move humans back into Nature – conceptually – and to correct the wrongs of terra nullius. The triumphant and often exclusionary narrative of white, Western society over the last 400 years was seen as short-term, self-destructive and out of step with Nature, whereas indigenous societies were seen as long-term, sustainable and very much a part of Nature; the way forward, as well as a belated redress of past injustices.

While this is understandable, and in many cases laudable, it has all too often been debased to being just a black version of the previous white, anthropocentric narrative; a strange desire to adopt and outdo the paradigm of ownership, control and consumption of Nature. Instead of the heroic white settler/farmer taming Nature, we have the indigenous farmer; instead of the heroic bushman burning and taming the bush, we have the Aboriginal ‘fire-stick’ farmer joining him in a sort of ‘fire cult’6. Hunter-gathering, Nature and wildness are presented, again, as inferior, and farmed, managed Nature is all and superior. This has gone to such extraordinary lengths that I heard an academic on ABC Radio last year breathlessly exclaim that the wet, old-growth Mountain Ash Forest he was looking at in Gippsland, Victoria, was all man(indigenous)-made, (perhaps news to these 300 ft, 400 year-old giants, and indeed to the complex ecosystem surrounding them), and a local indigenous person claiming also on ABC Radio last year that Aboriginal people had managed the marine ecosystem of the Great Australian Bight for 120,000 years.

A whole raft of books and documentaries (Rolls, Gammage, Pascoe, et. al.7) has sprung up with an all-seeing indigenous person at its centre and a wholly controlled, manipulated and managed Nature at its feet. Any aware young environmentalist must embrace this new understanding, must eschew wilderness, wildness, the ‘other’ of intrinsic Nature because this has been constructed, probably unintentionally, as, at best, anti-human, and, at worst, racist. Good intentions and rightful pride in indigenous ingenuity and longevity have been distorted, wider spiritual context and perspective have been ignored or down-graded in a rush to adopt and outcompete the white man in materialism, and instead of humankind being restored as a part of Nature, we are back to being Nature, all that it is, king.

This matters desperately to conservation because this extreme humano-centrism unites the dominant Western perception with the new indigenous paradigm to kill Nature in the mind. It is not that there is just us – it is suspect to suggest otherwise – so it doesn’t matter that 30,000 species are currently assessed by the IUCN8 as threatened with extinction or that Mt Everest now looks like Chadstone Shopping Centre at lunchtime. It is just we and our choices, and for every human choice there will be another, another alternative, and it will all be good. In such a world there is no loss, nothing to grieve, no ‘other’ to protect or preserve or live with, as Norman Myers9 so succinctly put it (also referred to by H DeChelard in Article # 6):

“Eventually we may achieve our aim, by eliminating every ‘competitor’ for living space on the crowded Earth. When the last creature has been accounted for, we shall have made ourselves masters of all creation. We shall look around, and we shall see nothing but each other. Alone at last”.

And we will be as alone in our minds as we are on Earth.

 

References in article

  1. 2014. Living Planet Report 2014. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.
  2. Fendley, M. 2007 (August 6 and August 10). The Really Inconvenient Truth – Parts 1 and 2. On Line Opinion. Onlineopinion.com.au
  3. Flannery, T. 1998. Throwim Way Leg: An Adventure. Text, Melbourne, Australia.
  4. Perry, G.L.W., Wheeler, A.B., et al. 2014. A High-Precision Chronology for the Rapid Extinction of New Zealand Moa. Quaternary Science Reviews. 105: 126-135.
  5. Darlington, M. 2018. Owl Sense. Guardian Faber, London, UK.
  6. Wilson, K. 2019 (autumn). The Fire Cult. Overland. 234. Overland.org.au
  7. Rolls, E. 1981. A Million Wild Acres. Nelson, Melbourne, Australia.

– Gammage, W.L. 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia.

– Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books, Broome, Australia.

  1. 2020. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  2. Myers, N. (ed.). 1985. The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management. Pan Books, London, UK.

————————

10Fendley, M. 2021. Killing Nature in the Mind.

11Cowle, K. 1903. The Victorian Naturalist. In Legge, K. 2019. Kindred. Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Australia.

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