“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance,
born of the Neanderthal age of biology.”
— Rachel Carson
Ecologists today must ask a difficult question: Are we succeeding? Is the human enterprise changing quickly enough? We can go to Worldometers and glimpse forests ticking away, deserts growing, and temperature rising. We know a great deal of numbers. But we also feel the impact in our gut as we witness another great tree fall or another species blink out of existence.
Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, launching the modern environmental movement, almost 50 years ago. Today, the world has many more ecologists, environmental groups, lobbyists, green trade shows and ‘earth-friendly’’ products. We have more Environment Ministers, laws and university courses. However, are we more sustainable in 2010 than we were in 1962? No, we are less sustainable. After 20 years of the Kyoto climate protocol process – science, politics, meetings and agreements – do we have less global warming? No, we have more global warming. Why? What else must we do?
Ecologist David Abram helps examine these questions in one of the most compelling and important ecology books in decades: Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Pantheon Books, 2010). Through encounters with wild creatures and terrains, Abram reminds us that we do not stand outside nature as independent observers, but rather fully within, embedded in a dynamic, living world. We exist only in relationship to this world. Our species, however technologically complex, co-evolved with every living thing around us. These may appear as philosophical ideas, but they are not trivial ones. These ideas prove critical to the actions we take and the success we achieve.
“Our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: To live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
— Aldo Leopold
Fourteen years ago Abram, Director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics, published his only other book, Spell of the Sensuous, which became an ecological classic. Abram demonstrated that our sensory perception of the world is not a one-way, objective observation but is rather an active participation with nature. “Ecologically considered,” he wrote, “it is not primarily our verbal statements that are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but rather the kind of relations that we sustain with the rest of nature.”
In Becoming Animal, Abram takes us deeper into our ‘embeddedness’ with the wild, evolving world. He suggests we will not develop those ‘true’ relationships with nature through political strategy, policy initiatives, or technological breakthroughs until we first ’apprentice’ ourselves to nature. He encourages us to spend less time in front of our computer screens talking about nature and more time being in a dialogue with nature.
An award-winning photo - in the Global Vision category of POYi (Picture of the Year International) 65 Award 2008 - here Adelie penguins head for water in Antarctica. Image: Daniel Beltrá
Abram examines our ideas through our actions and, specifically, our encounters with the landscape and the creatures with whom we share those landscapes. His insights spring from a naturalist’s experience in the wild, through encounters with moose, spiders, forests, shamans and even the contours of his own home.
One of my favourite stories in this book recounts the author’s experience with Steller sea lions and a humpback whale while kayaking in Alaska. Abram gets himself into a bit of trouble by disturbing the sea lions, who leave their rock and charge at him through the water. I won’t spoil the story for you, since the telling is the jewel, but in short the lone kayaker must find a way to communicate with these creatures who feel threatened by him. He tries singing, which helps, but finally discovers that a lively dance with his arms helps calm the conflict. However, when he stops his dance, the sea lions turn aggressive. He’s stuck.
We experience several important insights in this story. First of all, we cannot observe nature without disturbing it. We need to understand this deeply. All of our technical ‘solutions’ to ecological challenges include further disturbances to the natural world. Most human ‘problems’ are artefacts of previous ‘solutions’. Bulldozers mow down forests to grow soybeans and make biofuels. We contemplate seeding the atmosphere with sulphates to shade us from the sun’s heat. Every action we take, even well-intentioned, disturbs the world around us.
Secondly, that world occasionally resists, fights back or seeks its own balance. We’re not in control of nature, as Rachel Carson reminded us. Nature has its own rules and rhythms. There is no ‘End of Nature’ no matter what we do. Nature is far more resilient in its diversity and native intelligence than humanity and our technologies.
Finally, this is a story about language and communication. Humans often presume that we are the only animal with ‘language’, but Abram points out that language is simply the power to convey information. Birds call a companion, beg for food, announce territory, threaten aggression and sound alarms, all with nuances of their voice. Living in the woods, I always knew when owls were present by the alarm calls of towhees and thrushes. Ravens, whales and wolves have language and use it. But Abram takes this further. “Everything speaks,” he observes.
He recalls that indigenous cultures throughout history have embodied a “sense of inhabiting an articulate landscape ... a community of expressive presences that are also attentive, and listening, to the meanings that move between them.” Our modern technical language and phonetic writing risk losing "the rhythmic, melodic layer of speech by which earthly things overhear us."
“To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Why is this important? Because we are not going to engineer ourselves out of ecological imbalance until we understand that we are natural beings ourselves, heir to all the limits, laws and patterns of the living world in which we took form.
Once we remind ourselves that we are in a constant interchange with the beings and processes of our world, our actions take on a new quality. Abram invites us to feel this reciprocity with nature by paying attention to our senses more than our intellects, by spending time within the miracle of nature and paying attention.
Science provides information about the world but also leads us into a “retreat from directly experienced reality ... our carnal entanglement” with the living world. Other beings in the world are not just ‘objects’ for our observation, but also subjects in their own right, conscious observers with senses very similar to ours.
An orangutan swings on a tree in an orangutan reserve in Riau, Indonesia. Image: Will Rose / Greenpeace
Cultures who live in reciprocity with nature understand intelligence is a quality of the whole living world. Even our science tells us that nothing exists independently in nature. There are no ‘things’ alone unto themselves in nature, only relationships. Every breath we take could remind us of this fact.
We err to presume that ‘intelligence’ is the sole possession of humans. Thought, Abrams reminds us, was “not born in a human skull” but is a phenomenon of the body, the sensing organism. “What if mind is not ours,” writes Abrams, “but is Earth’s?” If we fail to witness the mind and intelligence of nature, we risk creating bigger problems by trying to ‘fix’ nature with our technologies.
This book sets out to remind us that we exist inside a living matrix of intelligence. This is not purely philosophical. Many indigenous people know this instinctively. The small farmer and attentive gardener know this. Ecologists should know. Sentience is an ongoing encounter between our body and the larger body of the world. Our purely human dreams and technologies can only impose their patterns within the constraints of the living biosphere.
As I read Becoming Animal, I felt a great sense of relief that someone with experience and intelligence was able to articulate this message with such graceful storytelling. Fourteen years after Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram has given us another classic that will help us ponder our future and choose our actions wisely.
A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) floats above sea grass in waters off The Maldives. This area of the world is one of the most seriously threatened by the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise and erosion. The spectacular underwater world that the green turtle inhabits could also soon be under threat as coral reefs are extremely sensitive to rise in sea water temperatures. Image: Greenpeace / Paul Hilton
Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.