Tag Archives: ecology

The Spell of the Sensuous

Spell of the SensuousFor those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines – a world of textures, tastes and sounds other than those that we have engineered – our task is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves – to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or onto the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs – letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.

The rain surrounded the cabin…with a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.
~~ Thomas Merton

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter – whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds – are never absolutely alien to ourselves. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Gradually, then, our senses awaken to the world. We become aware of the thoughts that are thinking all around us – in the bushes, under the tumbled stones. As we watch the crows, our own limbs begin to feel the intelligence of feathered muscles adjusting to the wind. Our toes listen to roots sending capillaries in search of water, and our skin replies to the lichens radiating in slow waves across the surface of the upthrust bones of the hill. Walking along the pebbled beach, we notice the ground itself responding to our footfalls – the hermit crabs all diving for cover – and sense the many-voiced forest listening to us as we speak. And so we adjust our own speaking, taking new care with our gestures and actions…

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming
~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpted from The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

A brief summary of animism at Anthropik.


Escarpment Blues

Escarpment Blues is the Juno-winning documentary that tells the story of a current land-use conflict in Southern Ontario on the Niagara Escarpment. A 600-acre quarry mine operated by the Nelson Aggregate Company is being expanded by 200 acres, thereby engulfing the natural area around Mt. Nemo, the plateau near where Canada’s own singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer grew up. The site has been designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and parts of the proposed quarry areas have been designated as provincially significant wetlands by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

“I grew up on the escarpment on the farm where my family still lives, within a long green ridge corridor that is prized for its freshwater resources, its wetlands and forests, its endangered species habitats, and its prime agricultural soils. This Biosphere Reserve is under serious threat from the aggregate (sand, gravel, shale) industry. Large multinational aggregate companies continually apply to change “tough” environmental land zoning to open new quarries on top of the Niagara Escarpment. Extracting the rock (mostly to be crushed for gravel) below the water table results in headwater depletion and contamination and destroys the most biologically diverse ecosystems in all of Ontario.”

In June 2005, Harmer, along with her band, launched the I Love The Escarpment tour across southern Ontario in order to raise donations for PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land), a conservation group she co-founded. The bandmates walk through the area, playing small venues along the way. Escarpment Blues documents Harmer’s fight to protect the remaining fresh water supply, save species such as the Jefferson Salamander and butternut tree, and preserve the ecological balance.

Watch the TVO video.

Source: TV Ontario: The View From Here.


Dubai LagoonAt the height of the Renaissance, Rabelais cleverly inverted the monastic ideal – a life of labour and prayer – to explore the other Utopian extreme: hedonistic leisure amid inexhaustible abundance. At his fictitious Abbey of Thelème, the inhabitants comport themselves in a regal spendour that was clearly the stuff of fantasy in the early sixteenth century.

But a century later, Francis Bacon decisively transformed the Utopian tradition. He raised the possibility that, given sufficient technological power over nature, the hope of a democratic abundance might not be unrealistic. Bacon’s New Atlantis holds its place as the first scientific Utopia, a bold prediction of good things to come based on unlimited proliferation of material goods. That vision has hovered in the background of the entire industrial process as one justification for the privation, harsh discipline, wrenching dislocation, grime and soot that this great adventure has cost. The concept of plenitude went into eclipse; the foundation of our contemporary ecological crisis was laid.

It was not until the waste, drudgery and filth of industrialism were vividly imprinted on the historical landscape that the plenitude formerly sought became a timely topic once again.

William Morris, the Victorian poet, painter and political philosopher, was among the first to take up the discussion in his Utopian novel, News From Nowhere.

Morris, a bitter critic of both the ugliness and injustice of the industrial system, laid his hopes for a balanced economic order upon a reformation of taste.

In Morris’ land of Nowhere, aesthetics is the context of economic life. The sensibilities of people have been schooled to value the quality, not the quantity of goods. For Morris, this meant a handicraft standard of excellence, as exemplified by his Arts and Crafts Movement, which he took to be of benefit for the soul as well as the body.

One need not endorse Morris’ doctrinaire anti-industrial stance in order to see great practical sense in his proposal. As a matter of environmental sanity, there may be a point at which industrial societies will have to revive the handicraft standard, emphasizing the value of fine design and durability as an alternative to disposability or wasteful turnover.

In her ecological Utopia Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy proposes another approach to plenitude. In the environmentally intelligent future she envisions – a worldwide society of well-kept rural communes – there exists a globe lending library of luxuries, from which jewels, objects d’art, fashionable clothes may be borrowed and examined by the entire population. It is an idea worth pondering.

In one of the mostly highly developed ecological Utopias, Ernest Callenbach deals with problems of necessity and luxury by imagining an economy that redirects the gratifications of high consumption toward a variety of cheap, non-material pleasures. The citizens of Ecotopia own little, but it is elegantly handmade; beyond that, the prevailing style of housing and dress is dropped-out funky. The workweek has been pared back to twenty hours; leisure becomes a value in its own right, used for the arts and crafts, for play, for recreational sports, espeically in the fiercely defended wilderness, which has come to be respected as Ecotopia‘s principal public asset.

An economy of modest means makes possible a simplicity that allows other needs to be gratified. The goal is not cathartic suffering, but pleasure of a superior order.

~ Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth
Image: Dubai Lagoon

Deep Ecology

The Norwegian ecosopher Arne Naess, one of the founders of Deep Ecology, described his goal as rejection of the man-in-environment image in favour of the relational, total-field image. It was a call for biospherical egalitarianism among all species.


“The ecological field-worker acquires a deep-seated respect, even a veneration for the ways and forms of life. He reaches an understanding from within, a kind of understanding that others reserve for fellow men…To the ecological field-worker, the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is an anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves.”

Naess is saying that there is a deep system in nature that contains us as a species.

Deep Ecology found the root cause of our environmental ills in our inveterate belief that human beings stand apart from nature and above it, whether as master or steward.

Many major environmental organizations (the shallow ecologists) continue to regard the planet as ours to do with as we see fit; their methods are essentially managerial. That assumption poisons all we try to do. It endorses our self-proclaimed superiority over nature and with it our isolation from all the beings with whom we ought to share the planet in biocentric fellowship.

The contrast between deep and shallow ecologies is revealed in the difference between those conservationists who would deal with the possible extinction of the great whale herds by setting international quotas upon their kill, and organizations like Greenpeace or Earth First, which would set the quota at zero – on the basis that no species may be denied its right to life. In a biocentric democracy, the “rights of man” belong to all species.

A question we might well ponder: when human beings unilaterally declare their superiority to all other species, who do they think is paying attention?

~ Theodore Roszak, Voice of the Earth

A Sense Sublime

Andy Goldsworthy“The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.”

The words, redolent with centuries of arrogance, are from a hymn written by a British missionary stationed in Calcutta at the time the first cotton mills were beginning to fill the sky above Manchester with soot.

The blindness is  ours. No people, regardless of the simplicity of their culture, ever took a stone carving to be divine. Rather, things were once transparent, and greater realities moved behind and within them, were seen in this and that, here and there. This is where the concept of spirit comes from – the once-homely, utterly normal sense that something other than matter moves behind matter, animates it, sustains it.

When we deny there is consciousness in nature, we also deny consciousness to the worlds we find by going through nature; and we end with only one world, the world of McDonald’s, and that is exploitable.
~ Robert Bly

Of that something, tribal people stood in awe, as Wordsworth did when he reached back to salvage the remnants of a visionary childhood in language that can still speak to us:

And I have felt [he tells us]
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Source: Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth

Image: Andy Goldsworthy, found on Graeme Mitchell’s photography website

Home: Yann Arthus-Bertrand


On June 5, 2009, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, film-maker, aerial photographer and champion of ecology, released Home, a movie about the dangers human activities create for our Earth.

On the night of the release, many theaters offered screenings for free and a giant open-air screening on Paris’ Champ-de-Mars drew 20,000 spectators. The simultaneous TV broadcast of the movie on France 2 TV channel drew more than 8 million people. The following Sunday, the ecologists had an unexpectedly high score in the European elections and just fell short of becoming France’s second political party.

Watch Home.

Rethink the Economy

On Boxing Day, a Canadian phenomenon where shoppers go wild at the malls, it seemed appropriate to excerpt this excellent article on sustainability.

Boxing Day is a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong and countries in the Commonwealth of Nations with a mainly Christian population. In South Africa, this public holiday is now known as the Day of Goodwill. It is based on the tradition of giving gifts to the less fortunate members of society. Contemporary Boxing Day in many countries is now a “shopping holiday” associated with after-Christmas sales.


Amid the discordant clash of solutions being served up to address the global financial crisis, a common refrain can be heard: Most global leaders and their economic advisers key their policy prescriptions to “sustained economic growth.” The prevailing debate is how to get there most quickly. In Canada, how this debate plays out could bring down the government in a matter of weeks.

Unfortunately, it is the wrong debate. Neither the Conservative minority nor the opposition has proposed anything that will set Canada on a long-term path toward the kind of economy that will both provide for the well-being of Canadians and enhance and preserve the ecological community of which people are but one dependent part.

All eyes may now be on the kind of fiscal budget the Conservatives might produce next year, but a more essential budget also demands urgent attention: the global ecological budget. The financial crisis has brought into sharp focus the need to fundamentally change, not merely repair or rebuild, our economy. Because, quite simply, sticking with an economic model that is driving toward ecological catastrophe will kill us. So, it is essential to address the financial and ecological crises together.

The ecological budget, on which all life and, consequently, the human economy depends, is already in dramatic deficit.

Here are six steps we can take toward a truly balanced budget that will allow Canadians, and all people on Earth, to live fulfilling, healthy, yet more ecologically compatible, lives.

  • Recognize that the economy is part of the biosphere. A comprehensive economic plan must be based on the scientific fact that the global economy is a subsidiary of the natural order. Economic policies should be attuned to the limited capacity of Earth’s biosphere to provide for humans and other life and to assimilate their waste.
  • Acknowledge that we need new institutions. An economic renewal tailored to the 21st century would establish institutions committed to fitting the human economy to Earth’s limited life-support capacity. Canada, with its token efforts to address climate change, is far off the track.
  • Acknowledge that unlimited growth on a finite planet makes no sense. Growth in consumption is a nonsensical response to the sharp decline in Earth’s biophysical systems that is caused by overconsumption. Our new ecological and climate reality demands new ways to live within the means of the Earth.
  • Fairness matters. A “right” human-Earth relationship would recognize humans as part of an interdependent web of life on a finite planet. The economy must recognize the rights of the human poor and of millions of other species to their place in the sun.
  • Expand the discussion. The new knowledge that will forever mark this period in human history is the overwhelming scientific evidence that we are overconsuming the planet and accelerating toward ecological catastrophe.
  • Look beyond technological fixes. Bold new leadership is needed that will focus on all four policy “theatres” relevant to human ecological impact and provide the moral footing that will lead people, individually and collectively, to choose lifestyles with radically lower impact. Pushing technological solutions like hydrogen cars and genetically modified agriculture is much easier politically than asking people to consume less or have fewer children. Unfortunately, technology alone cannot solve the ecological crisis.

Economic policy must promote not more affluence as currently defined, but more sufficiency for all Canadians – so that all may live with self-respect, without overconsumption.

Lastly, we must greatly increase investment in educational and civic institutions that teach that we are not “consumers,” but citizens of the Earth, and guardians of life’s prospect on a small, beautiful and finite planet.

Full article at the Toronto Star.

Peter G. Brown is a professor at McGill University. Geoffrey Garver is an environmental consultant and lectures in law at Université de Montréal and Université Laval. They are co-authors of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy.