How should Homo sapiens learn to “become at home on the earth?” First, I think it is important to define what exactly one means by becoming at home on the earth. The phrase implies that we as a species are currently not at home on the earth. Metaphorically speaking this is certainly true for the most of us, who consider nature to be something separate from ourselves, something to which we are no longer a part of. Many humans live their daily lives feeling as though we have successfully severed the umbilical chord that joins us with mother earth. And to many people this separation is to be celebrated as a success. Nature is cruel, chaotic, destructive, and something to be afraid of. Too often nature symbolizes suffering and death. This radical dichotomy between us and nature begins to explain why we are not at home on the earth. In fact we do everything possible to fool ourselves into believing that we are separate and superior to nature. We process and package our food in ways that blind us to the natural cycles of birth, growth, and death that brought the food to our shelves. We spend our lives working in buildings that are continually heated or cooled to a constant temperature irrespective of what time of day or season it is. We have complex technologies and medicines that allow us to exceed natural carrying capacities resulting in extremely dense metropolitan areas that flout our separation from and domination over nature. To me, being at home on the earth means that we respect the complexity of life and we realize, with humility, our place in the world. We would have a deep appreciation for all species (including ourselves) and be inspired and guided by the diversity, complexity and drama of nature and its paradoxes. I propose that there are three steps or processes that we must all go through in order to become at home on the earth. The first process is to become aware of nature and wilderness that is all around us. The second process is to incorporate ourselves both spiritually and physically into the biotic community. Lastly, we must strive to effect change in people to live in ecological harmony with our communities, ecosystems and biomes.
The first step to becoming at home on the earth is to become aware of nature. The process of becoming aware of nature involves opening our eyes and other senses to the natural world around us. This task can be, in fact, very difficult to accomplish – and I am forced to recognize that it may even be impossible for some people, who dogmatically refuse to look beyond their “mental lens” through which they view the world. For others, however, this step has already occurred and one only has to make sure that they continue to learn and experience the wonder of nature all around. Most people probably lay somewhere in between these two extremes – distinctly aware that there is something artificial about our lives and that there is something lacking from them – yet unable to realize what is missing. Sadly, too, our culture is currently structured in such a way that we are caught up in a positive feedback cycle of consumerism, materialism and self-worth that tends to lead one away from discovering our place on earth. What then is the path to awareness so that we can begin to become at home on the earth?
Part of the answer lies in the wonder that is omnipresent in nature. Observation and curiosity, perhaps, are the sparks that will lead the proverbial moth to the flame of awareness: How many different arthropods do I share my home with? How many different amphibian species live in my backyard? Why have some birds lost the ability to fly? Why do some of the largest animals on earth eat some of the smallest? Why are some species so colorful while others are not? Simple questions such as these can start a curiosity and fascination with nature. The sense of wonder that arises from answering these questions or even just pondering and imagining answers to such questions places one on the fast track to awareness. Cronon points out that, “The striking power of the wild is the wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us – as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history – as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.” Clearly that wonder is not forcing itself upon all of us or else the subject of conservation would be a non-issue, but rather it forces itself upon those who are looking for it. Additionally this wonder is all around regardless of your geographical, financial or cultural background. Nature, after all, is not very hard to find if we only look for it, or as Cronon puts it, nature is “all around us if only we have eyes to see it”. The process of becoming aware, therefore, involves finding our “eyes to see it”. Nature is all around us and it can be observed in numerous ways: In our cities, gardens, parks, and forests; in magazines, books, television shows, and movies; at zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and museums; even in paintings, artwork, anecdotes and dreams. Perhaps humans are scared to take of their blinders because they will have to acknowledge their own mortality and their insignificance in the grander scheme of life. But for those who are brave or clever or fortunate enough to do so, a greater fulfillment awaits.
The second step involved in becoming at home on the earth involves incorporating our selves into the biotic community. This by no means resembles Val Plumwood’s definition of incorporation whereby “anthropocentric culture treats nature as Other as a refractory foil to the human.” The path to incorporating ourselves into nature requires that we make conscious decisions to be part of the biotic community rather than apart from it. Over time these life-affirming decisions will become more and more automatic and routine, so that the conscious processes involved only serve to remind oneself of purpose and place. Decisions that promote recycling, sustainable resource use, lower gasoline and energy consumption, organic farming and responsible manufacturing will become second nature. At first it can be a difficult process, for it is far easier to embrace forms of cynicism or apathy that require little action or thought. Incorporating oneself into nature, however, does not mean that one need to live an austere or ascetic life. Imagine instead a simpler more fulfilled life where one does not feel the need to buy the newest clothing, electronics, or automobile in order to feel satisfied. Imagine your garden full of native rhododendrons instead of roses, trees and bushes instead of a lawn, nesting birds instead of monoculture, crickets instead of Round-up. Imagine falling asleep on a midsummer’s eve with the window open and the crickets chirping along to a chorus of tree frogs in the background all the while knowing that you are part of this wondrous and comforting (for we are never alone) biotic community.
After becoming aware of the wonders and complexity of nature and incorporating oneself into the biotic community, an individual has an obligation to effect change. This is not to be confused with actions that facilitate incorporation into a biotic community (e.g. recycling, buying organic foods) but rather consists of convincing others of the importance of living sustainably on the planet. This is somewhat different from Leopold’s Land Ethic because it doesn’t describe an ethic between an individual and the land but rather consists of an ethic for one to inform and motivate society to respect the underrepresented members of the biotic community. This process is in no way to be similar to the proselytizing or preaching that is common to certain religions, but rather should be based on objective facts, irrefutable logic and humanitarian ethics. Additionally, respecting and protecting the land need not be a spiritual or religious experience unto itself and Callicott has demonstrated that many religions are amenable to fostering sound biological conservation practices. He states that, “an international environmental ethic firmly grounded in ecology and buttressed by the new physics will complement, rather than clash with, the environmental ethics implicit in the world’s many indigenous traditions of thought.” Irrespective of ones religious or spiritual persuasion convincing someone to become aware, incorporate themselves into the biotic community and convince others to do likewise is no easy task. Yet there is an urgent need for change given the unprecedented environmental degradation that is occurring globally.
Convincing people to change is an extremely difficult task and one that can be frustrating, futile and demoralizing. If it is true that we protect what we love, then currently what most people love is themselves and their progeny, which evolutionarily speaking makes sense. Greed and waste are unconscious forms of protection and survival. Altruistic humans simply don’t live long enough to pass on their genes (and the only documented cases of altruism in nature are among close relatives, e.g. ants, termites). Yet one could be completely selfish and still respect the biotic community. I want clean air, clean food, and clean water for myself. I want to preserve biodiversity so that I can enjoy the myriad of life forms and marvel in their wonder. I want to live in a sustainable and egalitarian world because I would feel better and sleep easier. Perhaps convincing people to change for selfish, albeit not necessarily economic, reasons is one tactic that has not been adequately tried. In the end, though, there are no easy answers except that a dogged persistence is required.
These processes are by no means a panacea for the environmental degradation that is all around us. But if people became continually aware that they are members of a biotic community that is much larger then themselves they might feel more fulfilled and less scared and alone in the world. If people tried to incorporate themselves into the biotic community they may decrease their ecological footprint on the world but they would also find that their moral and ethical shoes were increasing in size. If people tried to effect change in the people around them they may make a difference in one or two people that could forever change humanities fate and role in the biosphere such that we strange and wonderful creatures could finally become at home on the earth.