If you’re a good ancestor of the Enlightenment, you probably believe that “nature” is something entirely separate from us. We moderns live at a sanitized distance from messy biophysical realities, after all. Lately, this casual premise of ours has been taking some serious hits, however, with the acceleration of climate change, species extinctions, collapsing coral reefs, cataclysmic weather events, and more.
In recent weeks, I've noticed a big uptick in the number of creative overtures to the realm previously known as nature (a term that implies that humanity and nature are separate). I decided to bring together some of the more imaginative gambits that I've encountered.
What underlies each example, it seems, is our aspiration to treat “nature” as a living system of diverse elements, each with its own agency and imperatives. Or as Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Seneca Nation, put it years ago: “What you people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.”
So how do we get better acquainted with our nonhuman relatives?
A New Pronoun for the Natural World
Robin Wall Kimmerer, the celebrated author of Braiding Sweetgrass, suggests we should start with the idea of using a new pronoun when referring to nature. In a recent essay in The Ecologist magazine, she urges us to avoid the use of the pronoun “it” in such circumstances:
“Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using 'it' absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an 'it' we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. 'It' means it doesn't matter….
The Burning Man festival held every year on the desolate salt flats of Nevada is usually associated with the culturally avant tech crowd of the Bay Area – an image that is accurate as far as it goes. But the event is really much richer in implication than that. Burning Man is a rare space in modern industrial culture that actually invites people to give expression to some of their deepest artistic impulses and cultural fantasies while requiring them to show significant self-responsibility, cooperation and social concern. It is an immersive enactment of a different spirit of living that actually carries over into "real life" after the event itself.
Hirshberg is a former Apple executive and tech entrepreneur who is now chairman of Re:imagine Group and cofounder of the Gray Area Center for Arts and Technology in San Francisco. He’s also been a Burner for years.
When Hirshberg told me more about Burning Man (which I’ve never attended), I was astonished when I first read the “Ten Principles of Burning Man,” which cofounder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004 to convey the cultural ethos of the encampment. The ten principles have enormous moral and social appeal and serve as a functional blueprint for a better way of living. The principles (discussed at greater length below) call on all Burners to honor radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
As you will see by reading Hirshberg’s chapter, the Burning Man principles are not idle abstractions; they are a lived reality for one week in the desert under extremely harsh natural conditions (heat, blowing sand, no water, only the stuff that you’ve brought along). The ten principles of Burning Man are a wonderfully vivid, passionate elaboration of some of the core design elements that sober-minded social scientists often ascribe to the commons.
Burning Man helps us remember that design principles of commons need not be MEGO experiences (“My Eyes Glaze Over”). They are the essence of what it means to be fully human.
Burning Man: The Pop-Up City of Self-Governing Individualists
By Peter Hirshberg
When friends first started telling me about Burning Man in the 1990s it made me nervous. This place in a harsh desert, where they wore strange clothes or perhaps none at all. Why? Whole swaths of my San Francisco community spent much of the year building massive works of art or collaborating on elaborate camps where they had to provide for every necessity. They were going to a place with no water, no electricity, no shade and no shelter. And they were completely passionate about going to this place to create a city out of nothing. To create a world they imagined – out of nothing. A world with rules, mores, traditions and principles, which they more or less made up, and then lived.
If you listen closely (turn off that iPhone and stop checking your email!), you can hear a quiet rebellion against the too-muchness of daily life. I'm talking about the over-stimulation of electronic media and the exhaustion that comes from being always connected. This topic has been getting more attention lately, which suggests that perhaps we have hit a saturation point. People want to learn how to unplug – and re-gain some measure of their humanity.
I first became aware of this trend in 2009, when Professor David Levy of the University of Washington came to speak at Amherst College. (See my blog post here. ) Levy is a rare, committed voice of centeredness in the digital cacophony of our time. An active meditator, he has spent years thinking about how media technologies are contributing to our society-wide attention-deficit disorder.
He points out that we have precious little uncluttered time nowadays. We live in a world overrun with email, Twitter and Facebook messages, always-on smart phones, pagers, text-messaging, and countless other media inputs. Silence and contemplation have disappeared amidst an overwhelming barrage of electronic inputs, both voluntary and force-fed. This has resulted in greater distraction and stress in everyday life, and a diminished capacity for creativity and thoughtfulness.