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The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.
Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.
I find myself, like many others, outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation. Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.
I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).
Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.
Harari’s theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .
One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).
But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.
Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.
The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.
Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species. While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.
A very dear friend of mine was recently bought a lesson at the Hawk Conservancy for her birthday. She is a big fan of birds of prey, especially the kestrel she sees on her daily walk with the dog, but i think the lesson transformed her. Into what remains to be seen! I could definitely see her working with birds of prey but she need to do the Lantra Award in Bird of Prey Management and Husbandry. I remind her that I made the leap from Care Worker into the environment sector- although i had formal qualifications it was the volunteering and building up skills slowly that really mattered in breaking through, not the MSc.
This morning i can’t shake an image out of my head and I finally remembered why; a story on the BBC back in April of the first female trainee Eagle Hunter in the Altai Mountains for 2000 years. I looked up the story again and every time I’m blown away by the images.
As I write this I recall a conversation with my Father on Christmas Day. I was stunned to hear he had been to see the Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies while visiting my brother before Christmas. Not so strange you might say, but there is history of course. Dad can’t do sci-fi or fantasy that well, so this was a bit of a surprise. Then he recounted the story which I had heard a few times before of the picture he drew as a boy of an eagle standing on a rocky precipice. I reminded him of the picture in my 1974 Tolkien Calendar of Gwaihir the Windlord and Bilbo Baggins and we still haven’t got to the bottom of which came first the picture in the calendar or the memory of the drawing!
And of late as I pass below the chalk escarpment of the Surrey Hills near the Mole Gap on my way home to Dorking via Guildford, I’ve regularly spotted two red kites drifting laconically over the fields and hedgerows below The Wotton Hatch. I have seen soiltary birds before down this way but never a pair. I couldn’t be sure if they were mates, but I hope so.
I’m sure there’s some psychological resonances going on here: a return to the instinctive, the need to take flight, views from above, ability to see hidden truths, hunting success (which remains an elusive prey). I’m grateful to my friend, ever my muse, and my father for pulling these connections together from the Moria- like mines of my subconscious.
And just before I sign off, my favourite bird of prey, the Marsh Harrier. So reminiscent of good times in East Anglia working for the RSPB.
Today I’ve been lucky to have two very different yet related experiences of Surrey Rivers and has underlined for again the importance of a vibrant and varied landscape for our wellbeing.
This morning and into the early afternoon I’ve been walking the River Mole with the second batch of 13 RiverSearch volunteers teaching them how to undertake walkovers to assess the status of a river for Water Framework Directive issues such as diffuse pollution and barriers to fish movement. We set up RiverSearch recently on behalf of the Wey Landscape Project to offer volunteers a way to become more connected with their local river and at the same time meet the need for more information about the status of rivers and the wildlife using them.
We started the day with talks at the Juniper Hall Field Studies Centre where staff are always friendly and helpful despite the fact they are themselves very busy with school groups most of the time. Then we moved over to Norbury Park and followed a stretch of the Mole into Leatherhead, recording the pathways for siltation and pollution, barriers to fish passage and the presence of non-native species like Himalyan Balsam. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the river was alive with Banded Demoiselles, chubb, trout and even a kingfisher. All the volunteers seemed happy with the day and are looking forward to taking on their own stretch of river to survey.
This evening I was down on the River Wey where I was challenged to change my view of the river, almost swapping over the half of my brain I was using! University of Surrey Theatre Studies students are holding performances of their piece called One Of Number as part of their Footprints festival from 5-7 June. Starting at the Britannia Pub near Millmead I walked up the River towards Godalming
with 15 others and was treated by 11 performances writen and acted by students which together explored the nature of experience and meaning as we our flow through our lives. We were welcomed to the Wey by a traveller who followed the rivers from her home in Wales ( I now have a stone from her home river). We were tracked from the opposite bank – i felt almost hunted-by the performers themselves-living storiesif you like-who were in a mixture of tatty linen and cordury with a victorian cut and seemingly washed in the silty water of the river. They shared stories about an attempt to save a drowning man; the lives of walkers who had cut their names into the bridge beneath St Catherines Hill; a King whose grip on power was as precarious and as doomed as his position on the hillside above as the golden sands shifted beneath his feet even as we listened; we met a woman paralysed by indecision over the choice to wait for the lover she abandoned or go and find him, paralysed by the fear she had lost him forever. Throughout the walk the river connected these disparate yet linked experiences; the river sperated lives of others experienced on the other bank and our own experiences forged by the impression of our own two feet in the sandy soils, recalling for me that old celtic adage:
“where is the centre of the world?”
“Between your own two feet”
Life can only be lived in the present after all, but its experiences can be told and retold, and each time we might find something new.
Its reminded me the importance of storytelling in my own work to protect our natural spaces. Not everyone is in tune with wildlife and the natural world in a direct way, but in each of the stories i heard this evening, a sense of place, a sense that all our lives are interactions with the landscape around us emphasises the importance of a rich and varied environment to stimulate our minds and enrich our lives.
I am the organisation of ants
I am the shoaling of fish
I am the pack instinct of wolves
I am the decay on the floor of the rainforest
I am predation
I am mycorrhizal fungi
I am the breaking of mountains
I am the north-westerly wind
I am soil formation
I am more than the summing of parts
I am Gaia
I emerge shining from a clay brain