Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Conservation, sensuality, and Proust

What was your first taste of conservation? Love of nature? My guess is that your senses were involved before your brain.

Maybe you saw something fantastic, or had a blissful time soaking up nature in a beautiful place.

Then what happened? You saw a threat and got worried or even angry about harm to nature?

If you're like me, you fell in love with nature first, and only later had your brain awakened to threats and the need for conservation action. You started with a loving connection to nature, and only later got all thinky and brain-centered about saving things.

This is well-said by Justin Van Kleeck over at sustainablog, where he writes

environmentalism is mostly about the amazing power and glory of nature. Indeed, environmentalism means luxuriating in the abundance of beauty lying just beyond your door. It is like a life lived within a Proust novel: every thing, every moment, is just dripping with sensuality.

Which part of environmentalism do you talk about now? How do you try to hook people on conservation? Do you invite the connection first, or call people out on the need for action? If you're like most of us, you probably rely on facts--talking about a development project that threatens harm or the risk of rising sea level from warming.

But what happens when people hear "WATCH OUT OR YOU'LL BE UNDERWATER SOON!" Their adrenal glands contract, squirting out adrenaline and they get a "fight or flight" response. Or...they turn the page and go on to something more pleasant.

In his strong post over at sustainablog, Justin Van Kleeck invites you to consider the sensual side of conservation--invoking Marcel Proust as his guiding light. It's a great take on conservation and desire, a blogfish favorite subject.

In this post, he sets out to explode three myths about environmentalism:

This myth that being environmentally responsible is just downright too costly and complicated in numerous ways is perhaps the most pervasive

But, in truth, we need not forsake modernity or take out another mortgage in order to afford new ultra-efficient gadgets. Little things can have big impacts, too: tossing that can or bottle in a recycling bin rather than a trashcan, replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, bringing your own bag to the grocery store.

A second myth is that environmentalism is like reading the obituary page unto eternity: nothing but gloom, doom, disaster, and death. We see images of mountaintops and glaciers simply erased. We see forests felled and rivers drained dry. We see polar bears paddling in an endless Arctic Ocean. These sorts of things can shatter both your heart and your ability to hope for our future. Even worse, such hopelessness easily leads to the “What can I do?” syndrome in which any changes, small or large, seem futile.

But, in truth, environmentalism is mostly about the amazing power and glory of nature. Indeed, environmentalism means luxuriating in the abundance of beauty lying just beyond your door. It is like a life lived within a Proust novel: every thing, every moment, is just dripping with sensuality.

One other myth is that environmentalism is some sort of contagious disease whose main symptom is a smug clique mentality, with side effects ranging from mildly annoying uppity behavior to slinging red paint, destroying property, and even homicide.

But, in truth, this smugly antagonistic environmentalism is by far the worst pollution: the spewing out of toxic deeds, words, thoughts, and energy that raise the temperature of our warming planet ever higher. I believe that environmentalism is about loving kindness—for the Earth and its inhabitants, one and all and all as one…living community, that is. I believe that the real green movement, the greenness that can lower our global thermostat, is a green with heart.

Great stuff, Justin, thanks.

Now for the critique: Why do you start with an apology--your admission of an addiction to nature? You've got a great message, and I encourage you to start with a celebration.

And what about Justin's solution? He talks about exploding the myths of environmentalism, but his recipe seems a bit off to me, he calls for maturity and thinking:

We can explode the myths of environmentalism—these myths of costliness, gloominess, and smugness—much as we did the one of the monster under the bed: with self-education and a few mature actions. Yes, the changes on our planet may leave us wanting to hide under the covers. But sometimes we have to grow up. Sometimes we have to drop the myths and be the change.

I think there's a better solution, and it's found in Justin's "living community" that's "green with a heart." Rather than telling people to "grow up," we should invite them to feel connected and live their lives with a consciousness and a celebration of the connections between people and nature. That's the way to explode the myth that environmentalism is costly, gloomy, and smug.


Anonymous said...

What a totally refreshing, well thought out perspective you shared. Thanks!

I think the more people realize that being for the environment need not mean you're also against so much, and that it can much more easily be a part of their current lives, the more it can and will be adopted.

Anonymous said...

Mark -- Thanks so much for following up on Justin's post, and adding your own compelling thoughts! BTW, it's sustainablog, not Enviroblog... :-)

Anonymous said...


I know how you feel, my friend. First, though, thank you for your kind words about the post and for using my material on your blog. We are DEFINITELY on the same vibe.

I agree with you that the “living community” is the foundation upon which any and all environmental activism (and even appreciation) must base itself. But in order for CHANGE to actually happen, that inner sense of connectivity must then be turned into practical action. So that is what I ended upon in my post…how to turn that foundational community sense into progress–personal and planetary.

I am going to be posting in a little bit a 2-part essay on the “Green with Heart” idea. I think this is absolutely essential….

As for Proust, I may return to him in the future, too. I think his experience with the madeleine dipped in tea is an exact representation of how we can be taken back to a certain “sacred place” by a particular sound, sight, or other experience in nature. So I hope you keep an eye out.