Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cultural Perception and Nature

One of the best definitions of nature I’ve found is from the Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World.

“Nature is often taken to be the reality of the physical and material world. It is placed in opposition to culture, the product of human intervention and production. Yet historians recognize that nature is actually a product of human culture—a complex concept that has changed according to the views of particular individuals and cultures in history. Nature can be thought of in terms of its components—for example, the cosmos or material substances—and it can be conceptualized as an entity in itself. In both respects the early modern era marked numerous controversies concerning the nature of nature and concerning the makeup and behavior of its constituent components.”

Many have observed that one of the most severe problems in our culture stem from our perception and definition of nature. People tend to see the places and spaces that they inhabit as not nature. Nature is in national parks, or in foreign countries, some place far removed from their familiar environs. Friedrich Engels called this “an estranged worldview”.

How much of our cultural and societal development is born out of our daily activities and habits? How are these habits and activities shaped by our living and working spaces?

The Great Law of the Iroquois states, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Supporting exploding human populations by exploiting the resources of future generations (of every living species, not just humans) has led us to the brink of destruction.

It is important to note that the natural world and the living and working environments of primitive cultures (past and present) are one in the same. There is an inextricable harmony in this symbiotic arrangement. An arrangement that limits population by a single species to what the resources of their environment can sustainably maintain.

The renowned naturalist, Joseph Wood Krutch, summed it up when he said:
"The famous balance of nature is the most extraordinary of all cybernetic systems. Left to itself, it is always self-regulated."

Here are a few ways in which modern humans can reconnect with the natural world and incorporate it back into their daily environment:

Redesign and construct living and working spaces to mimic the natural world.

In their cradle to cradle design philosophy, McDonough and Braungart challenge us:

“But what if buildings were alive? What if our homes and workplaces were like trees, living organisms participating productively in their surroundings? Imagine a building, enmeshed in the landscape, that harvests the energy of the sun, sequesters carbon and makes oxygen. Imagine on-site wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water. Fresh air, flowering plants, and daylight everywhere. Beauty and comfort for every inhabitant. A roof covered in soil and sedum to absorb the falling rain. Birds nesting and feeding in the building's verdant footprint. In short, a life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things. Hardly a machine at all.”

Redesign and transform existing cities to efficiently handle increased population densities with minimal impact on the natural environment.

This can be done through expanded use of :
a) renewable energy sources
b) neighborhood-centric infrastructure, goods, and services
c) pedestrian-friendly landscapes
d) public green spaces
e) local sustainable agriculture

Redefine economic structures by creating sustainable industrial systems using regenerative and restorative manufacturing processes.

William McDonough sites an example of a shift in manufacturing philosophy:

“Moved by environmental concerns, Pendleton Woolen Mills conceived an ecologically intelligent wool baby blanket. Most wool products are dyed with chemicals that are harmful to human health, which makes recycling of any kind problematic. But working with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, Pendleton assessed every ingredient in the dyeing and fixing processes and created a completely safe, perfectly biodegradable product--infants can literally eat the blanket, and when it wears out it can be tossed on the garden to become food for the soil. The blanket is also a model of thrift and social value, a profitable product that requires no regulations and carries no hidden costs for waste management or health care. It turns on its head the notion that ecologically intelligent design is expensive.”

Simplify Lifestyles

According to Duane Elgin, "we can describe voluntary simplicity as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living."

Ultimately, there is no universal panacea for the challenges we face today. Complete restoration and healing of the environment will not happen overnight and not by one person. However, the efforts of every individual in stemming the tide of destruction should not be discounted. Life is change, and if we are to survive as a species we must change our attitudes and perceptions of our place in the natural world.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.


BP said...

That is beautiful. I am very glad I found your site.


Andrew Challies said...

People tend to see the places and spaces that they inhabit as not nature. Nature is in national parks, or in foreign countries, some place far removed from their familiar environs. Friedrich Engels called this “an estranged worldview”.

Thanks for the reminder