A look at Human/Nature Relations
Since the industrial revolution, people in developed modern societies have experienced an increasing disconnect from our natural world and the animals within it. Developed capitalist societies are moving further away from nature and this creates negative consequences for both people and all other beings. This disconnect from our natural world has resulted in multiple and complex changes in our relationships with animals and nature. Our unwillingness to educate society about new knowledge surrounding animal issues only further removes
us from nature and unfortunately, steps cannot be taken to fix a problem in society if its members are unaware one exists. The current relationships that humans have with animals and nature is extremely impoverished but fortunately however, this is primarily by choice. We choose to be alienated, while the natural world is still out there to connect with. The biophilia hypothesis, or innate “wildness” as John Livingston has termed, suggests that all human beings have an intrinsic appreciation for living beings and nature in general. I think it is essential to awaken this instinctual phenomenon within people to promote positive action. The internal reality we create for ourselves in reaction to capitalism is an optional strategic response, one that creates these impoverished relations with animals and nature. Human/nature relations needs to be enlivened, and I believe that we can reclaim the world for healthy relations if people learn that they have a choice. Various problems within the contemporary education system prevail that inhibit reconnecting people to nature. There is a dire need for profound changes in the way we define ourselves and relate to other animals and nature as a whole (Best, 2009). Promoting awareness on topics relating to human/nature/animal relations via research-based art, and awakening peoples inner biophilia or wildness, is my approach to potentially enlivening these impoverished relations.
One of the main reasons why I want to research the human/nature disconnect and impoverished human/nature/animal relations is due to the overwhelming sense of absolute urgency surrounding the problem. Within the space of only a few decades, the way younger generations understand and experience nature has changed radically (Louv, 2008). The younger generations (growing up in developed modern society’s) intimacy with nature is fading exceedingly fast. This disconnect from our natural world started, and is continually increasing, for a variety of reasons. Ray Rogers (1994), Author of Nature and the Crises of Modernity, suggests that human relationships with nature has been absorbed by modern economic realities and because of this, we no longer feel connected to the rest of the world. The overarching reason why we, in modern societies, are so disconnected from nature is because we no longer see ourselves as a part of it. Ray Rogers (1994) argues that not only is the natural world disappearing itself, but the unconditional truth that nature is in fact a part of “us” is also disappearing (p. 2). This false ideology that we are not part of nature is largely attributed to modern days capitalist society based on consumerism and our obsession with technological advancement.
The idea that humans are disconnected from nature is far from radical. Karl Marx (1818–1883), political economist and theorist of capitalism, described what I think is the first phase of this major disconnection as "alienation". Marx thought that through the process of production, man engaged in a metabolic relation with nature suggesting that production is the way in which man interacts with nature. Under capitalism, workers no longer have control over the process of production because it is instead dictated by the needs of capital. Thus, people are alienated from this natural process, and in turn alienated from nature. Unfortunately this alienation has only further increased with the advancement in technology. In order to save our environment and the animals within it, the first step is reconnecting people back to the natural world (Gould, 2011). This disconnect that we have largely experienced since the industrial revolution has a variety of theories, ideas and frameworks that outline the direct and extended implications for both humans, nature, and animal species.
Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was another early philosopher who discussed ideas surrounding the human nature divide. Similar to Marx, Polanyi (1957) blamed our alienated relationship to the natural world largely on production, stating in his book titled The Great Transformation that “The dislocation caused by such devices [referring here to the commodification process] must disjoint man’s relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.”(p. 44). Another, more recent American environmentalist named Paul Shepard, suggested that it was the Paleolithic, Neolithic shift to agriculture was just as large of a transformation as capitalism and production, that aided in the human/nature divide. Radical thinkers such as Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and Paul Shepard simply described the early stages of this disconnect, the tip of the iceberg if you will.
Despite the grim reality of today’s impoverished human/nature relations, many academics, such as naturalist John Livingston (1994), suggest that our alienation from nature and the animals within it is optional. In his book, Rogue Primate, he argued that in spite of our cultural conditioning and domesticated ideological dependence, as living beings we still have access, if we want, to the natural world. He states that humans all retain the capacity for wildness but instead “ …we deny the virtues of wildness, and we deny its accessibility to us.” (1994, p. 118).
Fortunately, like Livingston, I believe all humans are born with an instinctual connection to nature, and inner “wildness” if you will. This theory is something hopeful to keep in mind when attempting to reconnect people to nature through research-based art. Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author. In the 2008 documentary Lord of Ants it is stated that Ed Wilson believes human beings have an instinctive affinity for living things. He even invented a word for it: biophilia. According to Jonathan Balcombe (2007), author of Pleasurable Kingdom, “[b]iophilia literally translates to ‘love of life.’ It captures our natural inclination to relate to and appreciate nature. It is what draws us to the beach…” (p. 226). Livingston (1994) thinks that humans attraction to nature is the fact that it’s alive, and wild, and at least for some, myself especially, “… its attraction is enhanced by the fact that it is not of human manufacture” (p. 7). He thinks that while rarely expressed, all humans still have a latent predisposition for wildness. It is natural for humans to be connected to nature because they are a part of nature, so it only makes sense that there is a variety of consequences humans can potentially face when disconnected from it.
A widening circle of researchers believe that modern society’s disconnect from nature and our impoverished relations have enormous implications for humans (Louv, 2008, p. 43). One man responsible for increasing North America’s awareness on the consequences people face when disconnected from nature is author and journalist Richard Louv. While he is the author of seven books, his most popular book that relates best to the topic of nature and society’s disconnect is his 2008 Audubon award-winning book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He focuses on the physical and mental consequences for children, primarily in the United States, who are no longer immersed in nature. Some of the major consequences include obesity, depression and attention disorders (Louv, 2008). Richard Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe the wide range of physical and psychological disorders that result from people, especially children, spending less time outdoors. Louv (2008) claims that the cause of nature deficit disorder includes parental fears; restricted access to natural areas, and increasing time spent using technology. A wide range of studies has been completed in a variety of disciplines documenting the negative consequences humans experience from this nature/society disconnect. For example, A study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning illustrated a link between the lack of green space and higher stress levels among people living in urban spaces (Aspinall, 2012).
Animal and human suicides are no longer viewed as willful acts but as a response to conditions within one’s society. In a book titled Sociology of suicide, in the discussion section of a study, scientist S. Taylor (1998) argues that suicide was relatively higher in urban areas because the urban way of life was more transitory and impersonal, and left increasing numbers of individuals socially isolated and hence vulnerable to suicide. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence confirming that people living in more urbanized areas are at a higher risk for suicide than their counterparts living in less urbanized areas (Quin, 2005). In 1995 a textbook titled The World Mental Health Book referred to suicide as “the downside of capitalism” and the traumatic social consequences of social change (Desjarlias, 1995).
One particular location of interest that first introduced me to the negative effects of being alienated from nature was the Aokigahara Forest of Japan lying below Mount Fuji. The forest is extremely dense and famous for being intensely silent due to its lack of biodiversity. Azusa Hayano is a geologist featured in the only documentary recorded in the Aokigahara Forest by CNN and VSB.TV. Azusa Hayano is a local resident of thirty years and although his career is in environmental protection, his work in the forest has slowly changed to suicide watch. Hayano is familiar with the forest and least likely to get lost in the dense growth. The area is now home to the highest number of suicides in all of Japan, a country already known for the world’s highest suicide rates, which are increasing with the present economic decline. According to a CNN report, there were 2,645 suicides recorded in January 2009, a 15 percent increase from the 2,305 for January 2008, according to the Japanese government (Lah, 2009.) The first kilometer of the sea of trees is typically littered with tracking tape from annual body searches. After the first kilometer the forest is typically free of litter, silent and with few signs of human contact. I had an “ah ha” moment during Azusa Hayono’s discussion of how suicides in the forest in the “old days” happened as either a samurai act or when elders were abandoned in the forest by poor families, not because of their inability to adapt to society. He describes the act of committing suicide as a “modern phenome”. In the documentary he states, “Studying how people coexist with nature is part of environmental research. I was curious why people kill themselves in such a beautiful forest. I still haven’t found the answer to that in all of the research I have done on the Aokigahara Forest.” Azusa Hayono is one of few environmental scientists to briefly mention the connection with nature and explain why I think the enormous amounts of suicides are taking place in the sea of trees. It is my own theory that so many suicides happen in this beautiful forest because people don’t want to kill themselves in a society that they were not accepted into. They are rebelling against the disconnect from nature and the fast-paced business-oriented life of Japan that they were unable to keep up with.
Unfortunately, the direct negative consequences associated with society’s disconnect from nature is not only attributed to humans. With the growing population of urban areas in modern societies, the potential for contact with more common wild animals is increasing (Louv, 2008). As modern societies expand, and wildlife habitats shrink, people and animals are increasingly coming into contact over living space and food (WWF, 2012). Louv (2008) argues that in a variety of urban regions, humans and wild animals are coming into contact in ways that have been unfamiliar to Americans for at least a century (p. 24).
According to Biologist Marc Bekoff ( 2007), animals who are accustomed to ranging for hundreds of miles struggle with the limitations our modern society places on them, forcing them to encroach on our human civilization (p. 160). We end up killing wildlife to protect what we have built in our societies. The majority of reasons wildlife reserves receive injured and orphaned wildlife is because of their inability to co-exist in urban areas (Macleow, 2011). In his book The Emotional Lives of Animals, Bekoff frames in various ways, how animals suffer from these impoverished human/animal relations. In one chapter, he specifically discusses how our modern developed societies have direct negative impacts on wildlife. Because they encroach on our modern lives, numerous wild animals are killed by federal agencies. Bekoff ( 2007) explains that in 2004, the U.S Fish and Wildlife service killed over 2.7 million animals including 83,000 mammalian carnivores such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions (p. 161). While they accomplished this using snares and poison, according to Bekoff they also “…shot animals from aircrafts and pulled them out of dens”(p. 161). In the past 14 years in British Columbia, there has been on average over 9,500 complaints about grizzly and black bears near humans, and of the complaints over 900 bears were killed (Molles, 2011).
Technology, as a driving force in the human/nature divide, and a direct result from capitalism and consumerism, negatively affects wildlife in numerous ways and for a variety of reasons. For example, birds in various locations have started mimicking sounds of human technology including ambulance sirens, car alarms, and cell phone rings resulting in changes in the bird’s natural behavior due to the unnatural sounds (Bekoff, 2010, p. 45). According to Marc Bekoff in his Animal Manifesto “ Researchers from England’s University of Sheffield have reported that robins in urban areas are singing at night because it is too noisy during the day” (p. 45). Light pollution from major urban cities such as Toronto, is also a major problem for wildlife.
According to FLAP, the Fatal Light Awareness Program of Toronto, an estimate of 1 to 10 birds die annually per building in Toronto. And considering the city of Toronto has over 950,000 buildings, these buildings have the potential to kill over 9 million birds each year (FLAP, 2012). Light pollution doesn’t only affect birds, young sea turtles are dependent on the direction of star-moon light that reflects on the waters surface to help them find the ocean after hatching from their nest. Unfortunately, sometimes they move towards brightly lighten urbanized areas instead of the sea. These are but a few examples of how modern society’s technology has a direct negative effect on animals.
My focus; Because there are so many issues, concepts, and problems surrounding the nature/society disconnect, I have chosen three key topics at play to focus on for distinct reasons.
In the problem section of currents of thought, I look at the direct negative consequences humans and animals can endure from being disconnected from nature. Instead of pouring all my focus into the negative, I want to research more on the biophilia hypothesis, particularly from Edwin O Wilson’s point of view, and review how and why it is good for humans to be connected to the natural world. Similar to Wilson, John Livingston (1994) suggests that “ …somewhere, deep and far beyond the shifting clouds of memory, sometime, one was wild” (p. 5). He states that all modern humans have “some deep-seated, primal need in us” (p. 6). He suggests that within us, there is “…some rarely expressed but still latent predisposition for wildness” (p. 6), but this wildness has “become little more than vestigial, as the result of hundreds of thousands of years of both biological and cultural evolution (p. 6).
Richard Ryan is one researcher of many who is trying to identify the positive effects of being connected to nature. He is an author and professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester. He conducts various studies in order to prove how humans can benefit from nature. The first article I came across was Research shows that nature helps with stress (Ryan, 2009). In another article, Ryan asserts that nature has the ability to make us more caring. While the effects of nature are well documented, from increasing happiness and physical health to lowering stress, this particular study shows that the benefits actually extend to a person's values and actions (Ryan, 2009). In this paper, Ryan talks about the four experiments he conducted in which 370 participants were exposed to either natural or constructed settings. In one of the experiments, half of the subjects viewed buildings, roads, and other cityscapes while the other half observed landscapes, lakes, and deserts. Across all four studies, people exposed to natural elements rated close relationships and community higher than they had previously (Ryan, 2009). By contrast, the more intensely participants focused on artificial elements, the higher they rated wealth and fame (Ryan, 2009).
While human’s positive relationship to nature is a rather straightforward and uncomplicated topic to understand, modern society’s relationship towards animals is very complex. A common theme that I see entangled throughout my objectives is a total loss of focus on the individual. Livingston argues in Rogue Primate that social mutuality is gone and that the individual has little relevance in today’s society, even among its own kind ( p.100). The relations we do have set in place with other beings are extremely impoverished, where the relationship has turned instead to domination. As Livingston (1994) suggests, all we are left is the self. He argues “ Any sense of relationship with members of other species – with the exception of the proprietor- has been removed” (1994, p. 100).
I am going to try to promote the idea that we do have a choice, the disembeded relations we now have with animals does not need to be one of alienation and dominance. We are alienated beings but we have disconnected ourselves by choice, nature and the animals living within it are still out there to reconnect with.
First I must view the current relations we do have with animals. Unfortunately, blatant inconsistencies in our relationships with other species in modern societies are extremely common (Herzog, 2011). Richard Louv (2008) suggests that as Americans become increasingly urbanized, their attitudes toward animals change in paradoxical ways (p. 133). In Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, by Barbra Noske, she argues that alienation from animals is of main concern when studying human’s integral relationship with nature. Here she is suggesting that alienation from animals is important to consider when reviewing the relationships between people in modern societies and nature. A study done by the BBC Wildlife Magazine found that most children were unable to identify common plant and animal species found in their backyard (Cassidy, 2008). When asked to identify their favorite animal, most listed a domestic pet instead of a wild animal (Cassidy, 2008). The relationships people of all ages have with animals in modern societies are changing at an astonishing rate.
The book Tiger by John Vaillant has played a significant role in my understanding of the ways in which relationships with wild animals have changed over time and space. Valliant talks about how some places in the world, specifically Russia, are still connected to nature and wildlife. He states, “the forest and its creatures – plant and animals alike – have a significance that most people in the West lost touch with generations ago” (Vaillant, 2010, p. 79). Another recent author that argues that our relationships with animals have changed drastically because of the nature/society disconnect is Jenny Diski, author of What I Don’t know About Animals . She states, “[f]or all societies, until quite recent history, we inhabit a world where animals and humans coexist, where animals are magical, powerful, and cunning, where animals can help humans, even if animals are hunted, they are party to the necessity”( 2010, p. 34-35) . Instead of coexisting, in modern society, we are now dominating, no longer a part of nature, but thought to be above it.
Essentially what I want to look at is what professor Steve Best refers to as critical animal studies. In an essay by Best titled The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory into Action and Animal Liberation into Higher Education, he argues that the field of animal studies is not about nonhuman animals in isolation from human animals, but rather human-nonhuman animal relations (2009). He also argues that critical animal studies engage in controversial issues, such as anti-capitalism. Capitalism is one component discussed earlier that has sparked these impoverished relations in the first place. I would like to point out Steve Best’s (2009) definition of animal studies, he states “ Animal studies examines how our lives, identities, and histories are inseparably tied to other sentient, intelligent, communicative, and cultured beings in ways that human animals (in Western cultures all above) have systematically denied” (“Contributions of Mainstream Animal Studies”, 2009). Steve Best description is animal studies is the approach I will be taking when researching human/animal relations.
Marc Bekoff (2010) suggests that if we want to heal the environment and improve our lives, we need to break through the cycle of alienation that exists between humans and animals in our modern world. Here, Bekoff demonstrates how a few of my components are related. The last subject that I want to master in my focus component is animal emotion, consciousness and morality. This may seem random, but as Bekoff suggests, if we want to make positive environmental changes, we must break through the cycle of alienation existing between humans and animals. One way we can do this is by studying the few components many people think separate us from nature. By identifying human-animal commonalities we are merging what we think separates us from nature. As discussed in the problem section, learning about animal consciousness, morality and emotion has potential to place “us” back into nature, which in turn sparks environmental action because we typically only want to save what we are apart of (Gould, 2011).
In The Animal Manifesto, Marc Bekoff argues that connection breeds caring, while alienation breeds disrespect. This component is key to my plan of study as it directly touches on my central issue of “disconnect”. Like other academics I have mentioned, he is suggesting that when we are alienated from something, often it is easier to disrespect it. The notion that animals have emotion, morality and consciousness has potential to revolutionize our ideas about who animals are and how we should treat and relate to them (Bekoff, 2010, p. 33). Researching and understanding animal emotion, consciousness, and morality from a cognitive ethology perspective, is a key component and tool in the process of restoring these impoverished relations. One that will weigh heavy in my portfolio.
The Solution: My goal in my MES I and II was to master the above topics so that in MES III, I can view these topics from an educational lens. Here, I will only demonstrate the need for education on these issues. The actual analysis of education relating to these issues and demonstration of research-based art on the above issues will occur in MES III.
Prior to developing research-based art on human/nature/animal relations, it is first necessary to research the current education set in place, responsible for educating our youth. The traditional school system in general is plagued with a variety of major problems (that will be further explored in MES III). For this reason it is no surprise that this system only further removes children from nature. Louv suggests in his book Last Child In the Woods that within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature, has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment but their physical contact and their intimacy with nature is fading. Children in today’s society learn about the rain forest, yet are unable to identify basic common species in their backyard. Louv (2008) states “ The wave of test-based education reform that has become dominant in the late 1900’s leaves little room for hands-on experience in nature” (p. 135). He makes a bold statement in Last Child In The Woods and argues that while there are some educators in the system sailing against the wind and trying to reconnect children to nature, “Many educational institutions and current educational trends are, in fact, part of the problem” (p. 135). Our school systems are only further impoverishing human/nature relations. David Sobel is an education writer who has helped in developing the philosophy of place-based education. Sobel is quoted saying “My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum similarly ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world” (Louv, 2008, p. 135).
The main practical concern arising from my research topic is lack of awareness on the issues surrounding the human/nature disconnect and impoverished relations in general. Evidently, there are a variety of problems when it comes to the contemporary education system and human/nature/animal relations. In a book titled Zoographies by Matthew Calarco he states that “… we need new languages, new artwork, new histories, even new sciences and philosophies” in regards to how we think about animals today ( p. 6). The key word for me in this quote is new artwork. Steve best explains, “ while academics play their theoretical fiddles, planetary ecosystems are collapsing” (Crisis? What Crisis, 2009). The information regarding human/nature/animal relations is locked away in the ivory tower. Steve Best (2009) explains that as popularity increases on animal studies within the academic realm, there is hope that it will promote awareness within the public at large, something I highly doubt will happen.
Former president of Harvard University suggests that “Armed with security of tenure and the time to study the world with care, professors would appear to have a unique opportunity to act as society’s scouts to signal impending problems…yet rarely have members of the academia succeeded in discovering emerging issues and bringing them vividly to the attention of the public” (Bok, 1990, p. 108). While this is not true for all professors, there is some truth in the idea that information, in this case, on human/animal relations, does not effectively make its way to the public and instead, remains locked away in universities. Because there are so many problems at play within the education system at all levels, I have decided to focus on research-based art as a tool to promote awareness on human/nature/animal relations.
I am fascinated by the role that art has played in environmental education as a whole. A book that has helped me understand the power of art is titled Art, Culture, and Education, by Karel Rose and Joe Kincheloe. They describe the power of art, its capacity to inspire, offend, enrage, and transform and define its role in education and awareness. They suggest that art has the potential to “bring up issues and concepts that challenge the domination of political, economic, religious, educational and artistic institutions, concerns that those operating in orbit of dominant power would like to see swept under the rug” (Kincheloe, 2003, p. 3). Unfortunately, the art world much like the educational system is also plagued with its own problems, a topic I also wish to explore in greater detail in MES III.
Banksy is a famous undercover graffiti artist from London, England and is a favorite artist of mine who attempts to educate the public on these issues that are “swept under the rug” by mass media. While Bansky explores a wide range of topics through graffiti art, I am most interested in his activism on environmental degradation, as well as his unique artistic approach to promoting “radical” ideas. Treehugger, a well-known environmentalist website, states that recently Banksy has focused specifically on environmental themes (Wachob, pars.1). He has a unique imaginative way of delivering a message quickly and effectively. For example, in his book Wall And Piece, he recounts a time when he hopped the fence into Central Park in Barcelona, and wanted to write laugh now but someday we will be in charge but after losing the stencil states “I checked my watch for the fifteenth time, and figured this was my best option- ticking off the time in classic jailhouse style,” (Banksy, 2006) suggesting that the animals were in a prison like confinement instead of a zoo. Similar to what I hope to do, Banksy uses art to educate the public about topics that he feels are not properly unexplored and silenced in the media/traditional education system. He is only one artist of many that I especially admire because he aims to educate on topics I am interested in, such as our changing relationship with nature, but does so in a non-traditional way while still educating a large audience. We share similar ideals when it comes to the education system and art (seen as two separate topics, or combined).
It has become apparent to me in this program that the contemporary education system is mainly used as a mechanism for social regulation. While my main focus is on Banky’s ability to deliver his powerful environmental messages so efficiently through one image, I am also interested on his views of education in today’s modern society. In his self published book he states, “A lot of people never use their initiative because no one told them to” (Banksy, 2006).