WHY DO WE LOVE AND NEED NATURE YET TREAT NATURE SO BADLY?
Our yin/yang relationship with the natural world is ancient and deep, and understanding the connection could be key in conservation efforts.
I’ve written numerous articles and books about the plight of the Penan tribe in Sarawak — human rights abuses and destruction of their rainforest home. Years ago, in an attempt to get the other side of the story, I interviewed James Wong Kim Min, who played an important role in determining the future of the tribe and forests in which they lived. Wong was concurrently Sarawak’s state minister of tourism and local government and one of the state’s biggest timber tycoons, with substantial timber operations in the rainforests where the Penan tribe lived.
Wong loved to talk with foreigners about the Penans, whom he felt the foreign press had idealized as a group of colorful, innocent, downtrodden, blowpipe-wielding, loin-clothed rustics.
I defended the Penan right to live peacefully in intact forests.
Wong lectured me, as I have been lectured by numerous Asian officials when I raised similar concerns. In effect he said, “We just want our cousins, the naked Penans, to enjoy the same benefits we civilized folk enjoy.” (He even wrote a poem about it, see Curious Encounters-Borneo.)
Wong was clear. The Penans needed the help of the powerful decision makers in the capital. The Penans were just one step above savages and Wong and his colleagues were doing them a favor by bringing them into the modern world. And the subtext is that the Penans live in the “unproductive” jungle, which is ripe for exploitation.
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We have a need-fear relationship with nature.
And within that complex relationship we can find the reasons for destruction of nature and the hope for conservation of nature.
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Let’s look first at the “need.”
We come from nature; we are part of nature. This connection is deep, ancient, and very Jungian in its impact on our collective unconscious. Our very earliest ancestors, well before the development of agriculture and writing, before the wheel and fire, when people fought animals for carrion, found shelter in the forests and opportunity in the plains. They understood, at some level, the cycles of rain and drought. Our ancestors came from nature; nature was part of them. This may explain why today the presence of green scenery slows our blood pressure and relieves stress. It might explain why people working in bleak, anonymous offices nurture houseplants to reduce urban tension, and why people recover faster when their window has a view of a park (curiously, even having a photograph of nature in the hospital room speeds healing compared to a barren wall).
A “need” relationship with nature is in our genes, in our cultural unconscious.
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But what about the “fear”? We define ourselves partly by what we are not. We are no longer “savages” who coexist with animals; we are civilized; we have left the darkness. Our ancestors learned to use plants for medicine, build complex shelters, and, after much trial and error, to dominate nature by mastering fire, making tools, growing crops, and domesticating other animals. We became the masters of the universe. We have civilization, language, Michelangelo and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. We have ploughs and guns, bicycles and cellphones. Many of us have been imprinted by one of the three strict paternalistic monotheistic desert religions that put a lot more emphasis on us having “dominion” over nature than on, say, the Buddhist approach of living in “harmony” with nature. That’s why we’re uncomfortable when “undisciplined” nature ventures too close. We tend our gardens and kill crab grass to “manage” nature. That’s why the Balinese file the teeth of their preadolescent children — so that the child does not have pointy, animal-like cuspids. Ask a well-educated city dweller in Jakarta if she wants to go into the rainforest, off the beaten track and she’s likely to reply: “Ugh! Snakes! No cellphone or air-con! Demons and magic! No Starbucks in the jungle, better go shopping in Singapore instead.” It’s all a way of saying “the forest is alien, it’s dangerous, it’s filled with people having strange animistic beliefs who worship spirits that reside in the trees and streams and volcanoes.” There are creatures in the deep wilderness (think yeti) that will tear off your head. We’re afraid of looking too deeply into the mirror and seeing our wild side.
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This is near the core of our confused relationship with nature. We need nature but we fear it. We’re part of nature, but we want to dissociate ourselves from anything too wild. On one side we have what could be termed a female-yin approach to nature: we are part of the global scheme of things, the interwoven tapestry of life — mysterious, complex, sharing, questioning, supportive, fertile. On the other hand we are very male-yang: logical, goal-driven, suspicious of outsiders, confident, potent. Conquerors.
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In political and social realpolitik this need/fear conundrum can lead to a Brown-Brown colonialism that has largely replaced the White-Brown colonialism that was so prevalent when Europeans imposed their perceived moral and intellectual superiority.
In the Southeast Asian context, the decision makers in Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila are sophisticated, educated, well-coiffed and well-dressed people who speak the national language, follow the majority national religion, have technology, and cultivate wet rice. They control things. And they look down their noses on the country bumpkins who live in the hills, who might speak different languages, worship different spirits, grow dry rice, and so on. By denigrating these rustics the city dwellers become empowered and feel they have a manifest destiny to “civilize” their poor naked cousins so they can be, as one Asian official told me, “more like us.” That’s a best case scenario. The worst case is that the sophisticated city dwellers view the wilderness as territory to be conquered. “It’s just useless rainforest,” one businessman told me. “Much more money in converting to oil palm.” And to make that conversion it’s essential to remove the backward and increasingly disruptive Penans from the equation.
Now take this a step further. If the people with the money and power think like that, what’s to stop them from cutting the “evil/scary” jungle and, if they can make some money out of it, well, why not? Americans are familiar with how the term Manifest Destiny was a rallying cry in which the educated, white power brokers in the East Coast cities perceived the Red Indians (whoops, Native Americans) as unchristian savages. We’ll “civilize” them. And if they don’t want to be civilized then we’ll show them who’s boss. And all that undeveloped land, just fine for farms and ranches. And look at all those bison!
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Albertus Paspalangi is a fisherman living in Bobale, a tiny island off the coast of the Indonesian island of Halmahera. He is a coastal “lowlander.” Although he certainly isn’t rich, he has a nice house, he follows a monotheistic religion, he speaks the national language, he sends his kids to school, he has electricity and a TV, and he knows the names of Indonesian politicians and pop stars. He’s never been to the interior forests of Halmahera and has no interest in doing so. To him, the interior is a place of jungle and potential danger. Given the chance for a holiday, there’s no question he’d head for a city like Surabaya and not to inner Halmahera.
He’s not at all an evil man, but the dismissive tone he used when he described people living in the hills (“they are rough and dangerous.”) perpetuates a “we” versus “them” attitude that has been at the root of Brown-Brown discrimination, which has existed since city-states were created.
The same dynamic is at work in regard to destruction of nature — American (white, educated, well-dressed, Christian) pioneers “conquered” the west by decimating (brown, pagan, dangerous) Indians and, by extension, (wild, dangerous) wildlife; today’s American leaders propose to drill for oil and “conquer” the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for the benefit of people in the cities. And throughout the tropics, governments and entrepreneurs feel little remorse in “conquering” the wilderness — whether that wilderness consists of forest-dwelling people or tropical forests.
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It seems we have a choice. Let the testosterone surge and “conquer” the world. Or invite some Earth Mother-induced estrogen into the mix and see if there’s a way to offer development with dignity.
Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based. His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia. He can be contacted at his website: www.sochaczewski.com
This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new five-book series Curious Encounters of the Human Kind. Available on Amazon.com