The Nature Connection

There are three approaches to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems: technological, political and spiritual. Bjorn Lomborg and Bill Gates in their different ways promote the first approach. They advocate for increased investment in innovation and research as the best hope of finding real solutions to these real and pressing problems. George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg promote the second approach. They want a carbon tax, more regulation and more binding international treaties to legally force governments, corporations and the oil industry to change their ways.

Skeptics of the first approach call it “techno-utopianism” and “the myth of progress”. Skeptics of the second approach call it “eco-fascism” and “a communist plot”. As you can see, the fault line is political. It’s right wing bottom-up “big market” solutions vs left wing top-down “big government” solutions. The former are optimistic Pollyannas and the latter are pessimistic Eeyores. The former tend to think that everything will sort itself out eventually through the appliance of science and human ingenuity and the latter think we’re doomed unless we take extreme emergency measures right now.

The third approach is spiritual. It sees our ecological crisis as a symptom of a wider spiritual crisis. In this view, something has gone wrong with our relationship to the natural world which needs to be put right. If we continue to treat Nature as a resource, only there to satisfy our own greed and insatiable appetites, so what if we have unlimited clean energy or martial law? Won’t we eventually destroy ourselves and the planet anyway?

This approach is clearly more philosophical. It asks questions about intrinsic value and human nature. If we could manufacture a futuristic world of high-tech artificial intelligence running on an inexhaustible source of clean energy (some kind of nuclear fusion perhaps), so that we could live a life of limitless consumption and entertainment with no environmental costs, would we want it? Is this transhumanist vision recognisably human? Surely it would end up as some version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Alternatively, if we could establish a totalitarian surveillance state that uses artificial intelligence to impose strict limits on everyone’s consumption in order to reliably safeguard and protect the natural world, would we want that? Wouldn’t that be just another version of George Orwell’s 1984?

Advocates of the third approach, such as Paul Kingsnorth, are skeptical about the first two approaches. Perhaps there are partial political and technological solutions in the short term, but in the long term, we need to radically re-consider our modernist assumptions about our place in the world. We need to ask ourselves if we are acting like spoilt gods, as Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus, or if we are dangerously left-hemisphere dominant, as Iain McGilchrist argues in The Master and His Emissary. Can a culture with no place for the sacred survive? However politically powerful or technologically advanced? As W.B. Yeats put it, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.

The spiritual approach is about inner change rather than outer change. It’s about a change in outlook and values, a revolution in consciousness. How is this possible? It is difficult to imagine how this might happen without a conversion experience. You can’t just reason yourself there. Climate data and environmental propaganda are not enough. The change must be emotional and psychological as well as rational. And it must be deep.

Sam Gandy, a researcher at Imperial College London, has been looking into the relationship between psychedelics and biophilia, the love of nature. It seems that psychoactive plants and fungi such as ayahuasca and psilocybe cubensis do indeed provoke a profound reorientation in our attitude to the natural world, which is often experienced as a kind of spiritual awakening. Could this be Nature’s way of bringing us back into alignment? Is it a coincidence that psychedelics have become so prevalent now, just at this crisis point in our collective cultural evolution?

It is our disconnection from any sense of the sacredness of Nature that has brought us to this pass. We have sacrificed Her on the altar of economic growth and progress, sold on an anthropocentric fantasy of technological mastery and independence. So, whilst continuing to pursue the first two strategies in our battle against environmental catastrophe, we really mustn’t lose sight of the third, without which we are surely lost.