"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rewilding Our Lives–A Romanticized Realignment With Nature

Rewilding – or realignment with nature in an attempt to recapture our native, prehistoric character – has become the subject of discussion recently. George Monbiot, author of “Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, has written a screed about modern life’s capitalistic excesses and the importance of returning to a simpler, wilder life. We have lost our way amidst material excess, increasingly define ourselves in terms of a mass-produced commercial culture, have become manipulated by corporate forces, and have lost our freedom and individuality. Writing in the New York Times (1.19.15) he writes:

[Today] our working hours rise in line with economic growth, and they are now governed by a corporate culture of snooping and quantification, of infantilizing diktats and impossible demands, all of which smothers autonomy and creativity. Technologies that promised to save time and free us from drudgery… fill our heads with a clatter so persistent it stifles the ability to think.

Public spaces in our cities are reduced to pasteurized piazzas, in which loitering without intent to shop is treated as suspicious. Protest is muted by dozens of constraining laws…Political freedom now means choosing between alternative versions of market fundamentalism….

We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sports, even cooking. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/Little we see in Nature that is ours,” wrote William Wordsworth, and it is truer today than it was then.

What does Monbiot suggest? How can one recapture the primitive, primal sense of being back on the savannah?

I felt it again when stalking up a tidal channel with a trident, trying to spear flounders. After two hours scanning the sand intently for signs of the fish, I was suddenly transported by the fierce conviction that I had done it a thousand times before. I felt it most keenly when I stumbled across the fresh corpse of a deer in a wood. I hoisted it onto my shoulders. As soon as I felt its warmth on my back, my skin flushed, my hair stood on end and I wanted to roar. Civilization slid off like a bathrobe. I believe that in these cases I accidentally unlocked a lumber room in the mind, in which vestigial faculties shaped by our evolutionary past are stored.

There is a whole circus tent full of disaffected, unhappy people like Monbiot who feel that modern life has robbed them of their soul, penned up in a conformist, predictable nightmare of things, suffering dehumanizing routines, and unable to even glimpse a way out.

This, of course is nonsense. Civilization has been an enabler of personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth since Athens, Rome, Persepolis, Babylon, and Alexandria.  Great art, music, poetry, philosophy, and science are the products of wealth, privilege, and the dynamics of urban societies. 

Modern America is no different.  The Internet has given us access to every nook and corner of history, to the Pensées of Pascal, and the dialogues of Plato. Everyone can read John Gill’s 18th Century Bible exegesis, Dr. Johnson’s interpretation of Hamlet and definitive texts on Creationism. Whereas the richness of ancient and early European civilizations was restricted to a very few, now knowledge has become democratized and universal.

Social media have enabled new and potentially limitless means of communication.  Facebook and video games are but the first steps towards a completely virtual world. When the electronic synapses of the brain are linked with the circuitry of the computer, everyone’s avatar will be able to wander through the Palais de Versailles and eat in the formal dining rooms of the Sun King.  Character, personality, genetic predisposition, and fantasy will merge in an individual experience more expansive, rich, and textured than any before.

Corporate America has not been the incarcerating, exploitive demon that Monbiot makes it out to be; but the creator of wealth, innovation, and ideas.  Mr. Monbiot may wish to go naked on the plains of the Serengeti to hunt lions, but his life would be short and brutal.  He would die before thirty either eaten by the wild animals he hunted or brought down by malaria, diseases of the tsetse fly, gangrene, snakebite, or an enemy’s spear.  Civilization – urban, densely-populated, diverse, and demanding environments have produced the greatest human achievements and will continue to do so.  Cities have always been the generators of economic and intellectual progress; and there is good reason why you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.

The romantic idealization of nature has been around for a long time.  It does not stop with Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, and Victor Hugo.  Our own Henry David Thoreau popularized the sentiment:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

Rousseau took this romanticization a step further, idealizing the ‘State of Nature’:

The natural man lives for himself; he is the unit, the whole, dependent only on himself and on his like. The citizen is but the numerator of a fraction, whose value depends on its denominator; his value depends upon the whole, that is, on the community. Good social institutions are those best fitted to make a man unnatural, to exchange his independence for dependence, to merge the unit in the group, so that he no longer regards himself as one, but as a part of the whole, and is only conscious of the common life (Emile, Or On Education)

The primitive tribes of the Amazon and South Pacific have been idealized as being closest to Rousseau’s state of nature. The wilderness has acquired a spiritual dimension in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In both Old and New Testaments, the desert was a source of trial and inspiration.

It is natural, therefore, with such a rich literary, philosophical, and spiritual tradition to think romantically of a simpler age. As importantly human beings are conservative, self-interested, and self-protective by nature; and it is simply more difficult today to square individual needs with the competing interests of a multivariate world.

Yet for those who are not daunted by such complexity and understand and appreciate it, the modern world is indeed an intellectual and social bonanza. Of course the social media, smartphones, and phablets are used for gossip and idle chatter; but electronic networks have replaced leaning over the back fence to gossip with the neighbor. The constellation of ‘friends’ expands geometrically. Face-to-face communication has been made more efficient by maximizing time and distance through GPS and SMS.

Human society being what it is, there will always be only a relative few who use the new cyber-environment to expand intellectual, personal, and spiritual horizons while the rest use it as electronic chewing gum.  A system, however, must be judged on its highest achievement, not its lowest common denominator.

Nature has always been a safety valve for modern society. Getting away to the Hamptons is a metaphor for a modern-day nature cure – getting away from the demands of the modern world. Or a walk in the woods.

Romanticizing nature however is escapism. Mr. Monbiot betrays fears of the modern world in the opening paragraphs of his Times article. Anyone with even the least-adjusted sensibilities understands and accepts how the 21st Century works and how, in the scope of history, is no different in its social deployments, classes, and ambitions than any other. It does, however, differ qualitatively. It is simply intellectually richer and more diverse than any before it. In fact with the coming complete symbiosis of mind and machine, the seamless interface between brain and computer, the experiential world will never be the same.  It will be limitless instead of limited.

So personally I don’t want to go spearfishing or hunting wild game on the veldt.  I prefer my insights from Dostoevsky and Paul’s Epistles, my excitement in bed, and my pleasures in the great capitals of the world.

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