When the director of Avatar, James Cameron, was asked "What is the film saying to society at large?” he replied that it asks us questions about "our relationship with the natural world at the time of nature deficit disorder." A curious phenomenon noted by many people who had seen Avatar was a feeling of depression on coming to terms with being back in everyday life. According to Wikepedia, CNN reported that the film's universe has had a profound effect on the audience over their perception of Earth, and life on it, in reality. A recurring theme throughout the film is the equal value placed on all living beings by the Na'vi and one wonders if Cameron has in fact articulated a worldview which we feel at our core but which our layers of culture and history have denied.
We are all embedded in a plethora of wonderful stories, yet the dominant cultural narrative constantly draws us away from any real engagement with the other-than-human world. On one occasion my girlfriend and I were taking my nephew, who was nine years old at the time, for a walk in the local park. "What's that bird?" I said, pointing at a crow. "It's a blackbird", he said. Of course, he was certainly right that it was a black bird but it made me think of Derrick Jensen’s musing as to whether any of us would be able to name 10 wild plants growing near where we live. But why should any of this be of importance to my nephew, or to any of us for that matter? The answer to such a question rests on how we see ourselves in relation to each other and the rest of the universe.
In his book The Ascent of Humanity, Charles Eisenstein describes how every culture has its own versions of two predominant narratives – the Story of the Self and the Story of the People – and explores the way in which they are expressed in our culture. Our Story of the Self is that of the “discrete and separate self, a bubble of psychology inside a prison of flesh, a Cartesian mote of consciousness in an inanimate universe, an organism programmed by its genes to maximize reproductive self-interest, the Economic Man of Adam Smith seeking to maximize financial self-interest, a skin-encapsulated soul, a mind separate from matter” (1). In other words, you and I are separate - perhaps mutually dependent in a limited practical way but independent of each other or anything else for our basic being-ness. According to our Story of the People, “humanity has risen from a state of nature, the state of scientific ignorance and technological impotence, to become nature's lords and masters.”(2) We have thereby transcended all the limits which are placed on other species.
Most people unwittingly accept these narratives, supported as they are by our media and advertising, and our education system does not seem to provide us with the critical thinking tools needed to figure out what's going on. And it's difficult to bring to any child, let alone most adults, any sense of awe or wonder about the natural world when they have so little experience of it and increasing their score on the latest on-line game has taken the place of climbing trees. And in case it sounds as if I am exaggerating the pervasive power of computer screens over contact with nature and being outdoors, particularly for children, a recent article in the Guardian entitled "Children growing weaker as computers replace outdoor activity" (3) caught my eye. Research published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica suggest that children are becoming less muscular and unable to do physical tasks that previous generations found simple. As a generation dedicated to online pursuits grows up, the findings have led to fresh concern about the impact on children's health caused by the shift away from outdoor activities.
One of the most transformative experiences of my life was to lie by myself for an hour or so behind a nesting sea turtle on a beach in Greece, occasionally being showered with sand, but during that time I somehow touch something beyond myself -- what I really felt was that I was in the presence of a creature from deep time, I sensed not only the exhausted turtle in front of me but somehow also its lineage stretching back 60 million years. I was alone with this other being with which I shared our planet, another consciousness, a different consciousness from my own, but it taught me more about myself and my relationship to the universe in that short time than possibly any other experience of my life. But you don’t have to be with a nesting sea turtle to make such connections, they are everywhere.
So what can we do? Eisenstein suggests that the old versions of the Story of the Self, and of the People, are breaking down as we transition to a new experience of being that is connected and symbiotic, and with ecological interdependency and cocreative partnership replacing domination (1). So we desperately need new stories that can help speak this new world into existence. David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal in his essay Storytelling and Wonder elegantly suggests ways forward:
“Can we begin to affirm our own co-evolved, carnal embedment within this blooming, buzzing proliferation of life, stirring within us a new humility in the face of a world that we did not create – in the face of a world that created us? Most importantly, can we begin with our students to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth. For our senses have become exceedingly estranged from the earthly sensuous. The age-old reciprocity between the human animal and the animate earth has long been short-circuited by our increasing involvement with our own creations, our own human-made technologies. And yet a simple tale, well-told, can shatter the spell – whether for an hour, or a day, or even a lifetime. We cannot restore the land without restorying the land.”
Charles Eisenstein likes to pose the question "what is most beautiful thing that I can do right now?". I would like to suggest that the most beautiful thing you can do is to tell a child story, and make it a good one.
1. Charles Eisenstein, ‘Welcome to Sacred Economics’, http://charleseisenstein.com/2011/05/23/welcome-to-sacred-economics
2. Charles Eisenstein, ‘A World-Creating Matrix of Truth’, http://www.realitysandwich.com/print/23921