An Ecological Imperative

On the first day of class, I told the 16 year-old students in the Social Studies class I teach that I am a member of the Green Party.   I usually don’t talk about politics til later in the year, when we know each other better, when they know I am not judgmental toward others’ beliefs and stances, but we were discussing the elections in Norway coming up in two weeks, and they asked.  The response was interesting.  One girl blurted out, ‘Oh, I hate them!’  ‘Why is that?’, I asked.  ‘Because they want to take cars out of Oslo.  I want to be able to drive to Oslo.  ‘I know, I said.  I also like driving to Oslo.’    Another boy said, ‘They are ridiculous.  They want to stop drilling for oil.  What are we going to live on?  Fish?’   ‘It’s true, I said, Norway has depended on oil economically.  The loss of oil as an industry will a difficult change.’

I didn’t argue, at this point, on the first day of class; we will all have more to say before the election and through the year.  But I did think about what they had said, and how, even why, they had said it.  It reminded me of a clip I saw of Une Bastholm, Norway’s Green party spokeswoman, in a debate this week.  She was powerful, articulate and passionate. She spoke about the need to make large changes in the face of climate change, and  she was met by confused and dismissive expressions on the faces of the leaders of both the right and left.   I thought to myself at the time,  ‘It’s like she is speaking a different language that they can’t even understand.

Listening to my students, I reflected on the fact that the language of an ecological imperative is not in their cultural and identity ‘vocabulary’.   Our cultural values frame the way we see every situation, and establish our imperatives.  In the first case, a young woman spoke from her personal imperative:  ‘I have a right to drive my car.  I want to be able to drive into Oslo.’   In the second, a young man responded within the economic imperative:  ‘We need jobs and the economy will suffer if we stop drilling oil.’   Both of these imperatives, the personal and the economic, are driving forces in our culture.  They form a framework, but also boundaries,  beyond which it is difficult to make meaning.  ecological imperative A diagram of the three, personal, economic, and ecological imperatives, form concentric where one can include the other but not move beyond their own boundaries: A person  operating from a personal imperative is unlikely to care much about economic arguments unless they relate to him or her personally.   Likewise a person operating from an economic imperative is unable to relate to arguments to arguments from within the ecological imperative, unless they also offer economic gain, or can improve his or her personal situation.   One of the ways, then, to get people to think about ecological change is to appeal to economic or personal advantages.   Help people to see ‘what’s in it for them’, personally or economically, the argument goes, and they will be more likely to relate to and enact ecological change.

This is true, and yet it is not always possible or practical.  People who have petrol cars will be disadvantaged by the move to fossil free mobility, and often it will be those who are also at an economic disadvantage and have not been able to make the move to an electric vehicle, even if they wanted to.   There will be huge change and displacement in the oil industry,  and there will be those who suffer losses.  It is difficult to imagine that all of the change that is coming can be presented realistically or honestly or compassionately as an economic or personal plus.

How then, can we expect to have a dialogue about an economic imperative?  How can we expect that people will change their cultural frameworks, and how can this be encouraged and abetted?  How can we come to develop a cultural framework that includes the ecological imperative?

I believe the answers to these questions lies in developing new ecological identity.  Culture changes slowly, but identity shifts can be quicker.  Think of your friend who falls in love, and suddenly it is all about ‘we’ not ‘I’.   People shift identity when they recognize themselves as belonging to something larger than themselves, a new group perhaps, or in this case, the natural world at large.

I want to make a case for falling in love with the Earth.   I want to help people to have those experiences that bring people closer to Earth, in touch with their innate connection to it, identified with its joy and its pain, inseparable from it.  Arne Næss talked about an ecological self.  Stephan Harding has pointed out that only when we have had deep ecological experiences will we gain the deep ecological understanding that leads to deep commitment, and thus deep action.   Thus deep ecological experiences are those that bring us into awareness of, and in love with, the Earth itself.

John Seed wrote about how when one has developed an ecological identity, action in favor of the Earth becomes self-interested.  The feelings of loss and sacrifice for the other are transformed into self-interested motivation.  In this case, the ecological imperative has become the personal imperative, because I and the Earth are one and the same.

I have started to answer these questions for myself by creating my own version of Schumacher College’s deep time walk here in Vestfold.  This past week I took 36 teachers from my school on a deep time walk through the Vesterøya nature area, and several responded that they were moved by the experience.  What if teachers develop an ecological imperative that they then share with their students, not by arguing or cajoling but by providing those experiences that move students close to the Earth, out of the separation mentality our culture has engendered, and toward a larger ecological awareness?  What if children grow up in a new cultural framework made possible by new ecological identification?

I will hold a seminar for a school in Stavanger next week that will approach these issues, and offer, I hope, realistic but soulful and sensual ways of interacting in nature as well as in the classroom and in the school.  My ideas so far include an appreciation activity inspired by Joanna Macey, a meditative deep time walk, sensual interaction with Earth elements including rock, water, soil and living matter, grounding activities, permaculture observe and interact activities, nature as metaphor and mentor, permaculture principles as tools for design, and the power of poetry, myth, fairy tales and story.

If anyone has any suggestions for how to help to promote the development of ecological identity, or the desire to be involved, I would love to hear it. How did you develop Earth awareness?  What was your ‘Gaia’ moment?  What experiences brought you close to, and made you fall in love with Earth?  How do you connect to Nature and and ecological identity?  How did you develop an ecological imperative?  Where does your earthfulness come from?




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