Modern society has done much to ravage the environment, and by now there is a numbing effect. When PBS recently ran a program on how the oceans are dying, who could watch without a sinking heart? Besides feeling gloomy and guilty, however, there’s a deeper sense that Nature has turned against us. Has it, and if so, why? The question only makes sense if you have a belief that human beings are intimately connected to Nature.
That belief is centuries old, when humans first conceived of Nature as our mother and provider. There was no question that the earth had been provided to the human race as a unique privilege and blessing. The Book of Genesis explicitly puts Adam and Eve In charge of all creatures, but the same sense of dominance infuses all cultural traditions. Nature existed as our home, rich with abundance, caring for our needs, and endless in its resources.
Now we live in a scientific age when it seems naïve to humanize Nature; instead, we assume that the ecology is totally indifferent to us, a neutral system whose forces control weather, climate, temperature, and atmosphere strictly according to the laws of physics. I’m not suggesting that this impersonal view must be returned to the intimacy of Nature as our mother, but at the same time, there’s no escaping the fact that like our ancestors, we still view the planet as our home, depending on it for air, water, nourishment, and all natural resources.
Without resorting to mythology, our view of Nature must be intimate, because in a very real way the breathing of the forests is an extension or our breath, its rivers and oceans the source of our bloodstream, its life forms an extension of everything we eat and digest. No relationship could be closer. In fact, everything Nature does, we do to ourselves. Nature makes us as fortunate or doomed as we see ourselves. In the past, the endless abundance of Nature was like a mother who holds her child’s hand on the way to school, protecting it from any sense of lack, threat, or abandonment. Now Nature has let our hand go – we are free from many threats, yet we are responsible for ourselves, like any child who determines his own future.
At this moment, any society that turns its back on perils to the planet is acting like a child who won’t let go of Mother. The advanced countries are throwing a tantrum, lavishly throwing resources around and tearing the room apart, while rising societies blindly try to imitate this behavior as quickly as possible. In both cases, the underlying psychology is one of denial. We keep hoping we can remain protected, privileged, and free of danger. This form of wish fulfillment is based on desperation and deep-seated fear.
Even the realists among us who aren’t acting like children feel the same fear, but if we can overcome our shock at how rapidly and ferociously Nature seems to have turned against us, there’s another way to perceive the situation. When Nature took care of human beings as if resources were endless, we based on happiness on that assumption. Our new relationship to Nature implies a different kind of happiness, not one that is worse but different.
It is possible to be very happy without constant growth, reckless waste, ignoring Nature’s limitations, and denying what lies ahead in the future. The key is to exchange quantity for quality. With few exceptions, every family lives on limited resources, so making this our planetary psychology comes naturally – we only have to make a shift away from our unrealistic extravagance. Without a shift in consciousness, the environment will continue to deteriorate, but what I find hopeful is that each person can make the shift now, which is how all social change occurs. Improving the quality of your life is a primary goal in the first place. That part isn’t new. But instead of pretending you are on a luxury ocean liner, your model can be a small, self-enclosed boat where every inch counts and resources are limited. I don’t find that a gloomy image. The spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti told the truth decades ago when he pointed out that the physical necessities of life are, after all, quite modest – a decently comfortable shelter, warm clothes, and a modicum of food. There’s no use pretending that adding more and more leads to a higher state of happiness. It doesn’t. Each person learns as much if they look at their own lives. Somewhere in the future we will learn the same as a planet.