(C) Copyright 2017-2022 The Free Range Network; released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license (Version 4 International).
Created: January 2022.
Length: ~4,500 words.
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Recent research from different urbanised cultures around the world shows that being outdoors, “in nature”, makes you feel better; and has been shown to help general health, boost the immune system, as well as improving mental health. More importantly, by coming into closer contact with the natural world we can find the space to slow down from the pace of technological society, and in these circumstances, perhaps we can more easily visualise our slower, simpler, low-energy future lifestyle.
The ‘Free Camping’ project encourages people to camp outdoors as a means to learning both the skills to live with less material goods, and to get closer to what it means to be a living natural being. From our experience working with groups doing this, this activity creates in us, through practical experience, a sense that we are each capable of leading a lifestyle beyond the pressures of the everyday consumer lifestyle.
This discussion is split into four parts, each exploring one of the ‘big issues’ the project seeks to explore:
Whether you delve into the details of the above is not a condition of being able to learn these ideas. From our experience, most people seem to implicitly understand these issues as a ‘feeling’ when they spend a lot of time engaged in simple outdoor living. The point is, by learning the details, you can more-easily articulate these ideas to others – and so help spread the message.
Traditional psychology, as with other ‘Western’ scientific disciplines, gives no weight to the value of the natural environment to human beings; only the individual matters. ‘Ecopsychology’ attempts to rectify this deficit – which does not exist in many Eastern philosophies and traditional/aboriginal cultures – by studying how people interact with nature, and how our deep desire for interaction with the natural world still has an influence on us today.
Ecopsychology is popularly described as a, ‘synthesis of ecology and psychology, studying the emotional bond between humans and the Earth’. A central premise is that while the mind is shaped by the modern world, its underlying structure was created in a natural non-human environment.
Until 7,000 to 12,000 years ago, from the near 200,000 year-old history of humans ‘like us’, we were nomadic peoples. Over two or three thousand years, with the development of formal agriculture, we stopped moving and became fixed in the landscape; and large-scale urbanisation, and our routine separation from the natural landscape, is a phenomena of just the last two centuries.
We might believe ourselves to be more refined than our ancient ancestors, but as research indicates, our biology and psychology doesn’t evolve to changing circumstance that quickly. There is, buried inside us all, a primitive being longing for an ‘Eden’ to find sanctuary within. This is why ecopsychology seeks to remedy the disrupted emotional connection between humans and nature by bringing people spiritually closer to nature.
A factor we see again and again in the study of ecopsychology is something often referred to as, ‘the other’. In our daily lives we only get to measure our self image and our abilities against those of other humans, and of human creations. But when we immerse ourselves in nature we lose these pressures because it represents something ‘other’ than human. More importantly, the ‘wholeness’ or ‘interconnected’ form of the natural world stands in stark contrast to human society – where in nature do we find traffic jams, waste dumps and a pressure to conform/consume?
The ‘otherness’ of nature allows us to unbundle our problems, and focus more clearly on addressing them, because the deep feelings that nature awakens puts our modern human problems into stark perspective – or reduced to the simplest level, we create the time and space to think.
Recent psychological research makes a clear case that the increasing pressures created by the faster pace of modern society, from mass media-led consumption, to debt, to longer working hours, is causing increasing levels of psychological stress. This trend was even examined in a UK government study (eventually released by the now-abolished Sustainable Development Commission) in which Cabinet Office researchers concluded:
“Policy makers in the UK are, in effect, confronted with a double dilemma. Increased economic growth is generating more and more negative externalities that threaten to overwhelm the life-support systems on which we depend. Equally, increased economic growth isn’t necessarily making people any happier.”
The difficulty is that our modern, growth-led, consumer society is a delusion; it exists in ignorance of the clear physical, technological and environmental constraints on the human species. More than that, it persists primarily because of those pressures, which lead us into habitual patterns of consumption which are hard to break. But if, tomorrow, most people were to perceive these problems as real, there would be chaos because so many of us are inextricably bound-up within the current form of our society, and can see no alternative option to these patterns of living.
In fact, even those trying to leave “the system” are to some extent bound up within the ecological (and human) damage that underpins the operation of the global economy. This leaves everyone who may perceive the deeper truths in our society in what may seem an inescapable state of despair and hopelessness. Or, as Theodore Roszak says in his essay, Where Psyche Meets Gaia:
“We can read out transactions with the natural environment – the way we use or abuse the planet – as projections of unconscious needs and desires, in much the same way we can read dreams or hallucinations to learn much about our deep motivations, fears and hatreds. In fact, our wishful, wilful imprint upon the natural environment may reveal our collective state of soul more tellingly than the dreams we wake from and shake off, knowing them to be unreal. Far more consequential are the dreams that we take with us out into the world each day and maniacally set about making ‘real’ – in steel and concrete, in flesh and blood, out of the resources torn from the substance of the planet. Precisely because we have acquired the power to work our will upon the environment, the planet has become like that blank psychiatric screen on which the neurotic unconscious projects its fantasies.”
This is why reconnecting to natural systems, through activities like camping or foraging, can be such a valuable tutor. It's not just that you become more self-reliant, and able to learn life-skills that require less resources to sustain. At the same time the ‘otherness’ that nature provides allows us to look at our difficulties, individually and as a species, and find ways through what may seem from within mainstream society a wholly insolvable set of issues.
In the book, Radical Simplicity, in which Jim Merkel outlines his ideas on how we can all radically reduce our consumption, the process of encountering nature is summed up as follows:
“The more time you are in nature, the more it enters your being. I enjoy being in nature with others, but there is a special quality in being alone. Pets and friends draw me to their own sights and smells, some of which I would miss. But alone, a certain intensity magnifies the land's voice. It is clearer. The subtlety of my own senses and instincts can be followed directly. A healthy diet of time alone and with friends in nature can ground the whole process of reducing your impact.”
In the context of the ‘Free Camping’ Project, it’s the activities that you carry out when outdoors that are also relevant, not just the experience of being ‘in nature’. Camping simply not only allows you to develop your skills of self-reliance; but once you've become proficient you’ll find, without distractions such as the TV, mobile phones and the Internet, that you'll have more time to slow down. Then, with this slower pace, you will begin to attune your senses to your new surroundings.
In his essay, The Way of the Wilderness, psychotherapist Steven Harper outlines his experiences of leading groups into the wilderness and the effect it has upon the senses:
“Upon entering wilderness, one of the first things almost everyone experiences is an enlivening of the senses. Suddenly, we are bathed in (and sometimes overloaded with) new sounds, awesome sights, interesting textures, different smells and tastes. The awakening of our senses, or perhaps better stated, ‘coming to our senses’, is a subtly powerful and underrated experience. People learn how greatly some of our basic modes of perception have been dulled in order to survive the urban world; many have been deadened unnecessarily. As long as we remain unaware of the richness of our senses, we have little choice about what we sense, and thus our perception is censored.”
This might make everything seem “fun”, and so it’s important to note that he goes on to talk about how the “problems” of being outdoors are helpful:
“Wilderness is not a carpet of flowers. Wilderness also includes grey rainy days, animal fouled water, dark, perilous forests, and deathly dangers. For example, our culture consistently avoids mud and rain; vacation ads depict white clean beaches and sunny skies… Metaphorically, our willingness to be in the mud and rain can reflect our willingness to be in our internal mud and rain. To put oneself in mud and rain is more than a matter of tolerance; it is active participation in our own ‘raininess’ or ‘muddiness’.”
He finishes his essay by noting that some of the most significant effects that he has studied occur when the participants return from their trip:
“Yet no matter how fully we experience the primordial self while in the wild, the real work begins when we return. Even the most potent wilderness journey can be lost in a few moments or days, brushed off by saying, ‘I've got back to the real world now’… How can we find this same sense of sacredness in everyday life? Like any powerful transformation, the awesome (and many times overwhelming) experience of wilderness can be difficult to incorporate into our everyday life… Upon emerging from wilderness we are confronted with our inconsistencies and notice more than ever before how drastically out of balance we live. Many return to a great sense of loss or pain, realising how cruelly we have divided our lives. This schism is felt deeply and can make living our ‘regular’ life very difficult.”
The answer is of course that if you perceive a problem with your ‘ordinary life’ then you should change it. There is one obvious truth that, on returning to our “modern society”, we can all perceive clearly: You cannot consume your way out of a crisis of consumption!
In reality, though, any such radical change we might wish to make in our ‘ordinary life’ is blocked, at many levels, by the refusal of the political system to enter into a serious discussion about such radical change – and so continues to obstruct those who might wish to.
In the absence of any clear, non-consumption-based plan from politicians, and even many in the mainstream environment movement, we are on our own. We should take our new skills and our new inspiration, developed through the practical experience of camping, and seek to form a new lifestyle and social networks ourselves. Then, working independently of those obstructions from above, create those things we feel we need to change ourselves, collectively.
While ecopsychology is important to understand the ‘inward’ journey of change, as it’s based on your personal perceptions it will only ever produce answers about you. To understand how ‘you’ – that singular being – relate to everything else, we need a different set of ideas. This is where ‘Deep Ecology’ can provide a perspective on how you relate to everything else – and the implications that has for how we live our lives.
As philosopher Mark Fisher said, “people are more willing to think about the end of the world than the end of ‘capitalism’”. The fact is, though, the failure of ecosystems will directly cause first the collapse of consumerism, then of capitalism, and unless that process of decline is arrest, the human species.
The stark facts are that the natural biosphere, and a human system based upon a constant growth, cannot co-exist together indefinitely.
But as that collapse in natural systems becomes visible to people, environmentalism, too, is facing an existential crisis.
For all the evidence they throw at decision-makers, the environmental lobby still fail to make any significant change. They believe they just need better facts, or more support, but neither seems to make any difference. After thirty years of suppressing criticism, recently these failures have manifested in a series of critical works:
What these responses to the failure of the contemporary environment movement represent is a ‘deep ecological’ perspective: Deep ecology views the living environment as a whole, singular entity, independent of its benefits for human exploitation. It is described as ‘deep’ because it looks more deeply at humanity's relationship with the natural world, and as a result, produces more ‘troubling’ conclusions than those of mainstream environmentalism. Deep ecology takes a holistic view of the world human beings live in, based on the principle that the separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole
Deep ecological ideas had been at the heart of the movement since the 1960s. By the late 1980s, when figures in North America and Europe sought to professionalise the movement, to work within the mainstream of politics and economics, these principles were effectively extinguished. The Ecology Party in Britain, for example, labelled its ‘deep green’ adherents as, “fundos”; and under the leadership of Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, they were marginalised as the party transformed itself into ‘The Green Party’.
Bill Devall was an American sociologist, a leading ecological thinker of the 1960s and 1970s, and one of the founders of the philosophy of Deep Ecology. In 1980, Devall wrote a paper for the Journal of Natural Resources that was one of the first instances where the ‘deep ecology’ was defined:
“There are two great streams of environmentalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. One stream is reformist, attempting to control some of the worst of the air and water pollution and inefficient land use practices in industrialized nations and to save a few of the remaining pieces of wildlands as ‘designated wilderness areas.’ The other stream supports many of the reformist goals but is revolutionary, seeking a new metaphysics, epistemology, cosmology, and environmental ethics of person/planet. This paper is an intellectual archaeology of the second of these streams of environmentalism, which I will call ‘deep ecology’.”
“I contend that both streams of environmentalism are reactions to the successes and excesses of the implementation of the dominant social paradigm. Although reformist environmentalism treats some of the symptoms of the environmental crisis and challenges some of the assumptions of the dominant social paradigm (such as growth of the economy at any cost), deep ecology questions the fundamental premises of the dominant social paradigm. In the future, as the limits of reform are reached and environmental problems become more serious, the reform environmental movement will have to come to terms with deep ecology.”
As the human system reaches its ecological limits, and the biosphere begins to break down, clearly we’ve reached the point Devall identifies. ‘Reform’ is no longer an option. We must now talk in terms of ‘radical’ change. What Devall is making explicit is that Deep Ecology does not function from an external imposition of change; the result of governments enacting environmental policies. It proceeds from the change within our conception of ourselves, and collectively as a society, as we rediscover our place in the natural world as living beings.
Ecopsychology too, though looking inward, is still taking the same principles to make its analysis. As Andy Fisher states in his book, Radical Ecopsychology:
“In sum, ecopsychology is a psychological intervention aimed at contributing to the transformation of society by encouraging or providing for the recovery of our nature and our experience, for regaining the lost world-relations and life-meanings. It is an effort to remember that, and how, we are part of a big life process; to get us back into the service of all life.”
The philosopher Alan Watts describes the issue of humans, and their self-identity in the world, at length in his 1971 video essay, ‘Conversation with Myself’:
The human race has to learn how to leave the world alone. And let what is called the natural homoeostases – that is, the self balancing process of nature – take care of the mess. Now how are we going to do that? See our problem is we don’t really know how to stop. We’ve got something started, and we see it’s going in a wrong direction. And I think the difficulty is, to borrow an old Chinese saying, that when the wrong man uses the right means the right means work in the wrong way. In other words, there’s something wrong with the way we think, and while that is there, everything we do will be a mess.
In 1984, the general principles of Deep Ecology were more formally defined by George Sessions and Arne Naess:
Take a moment to think about that list. What would a world run on those principles look like? – and just how different would that be to the world we exist in today?
Now think of what most environmental groups recommend, and you will see the massive gap which exists between the status quo-friendly policies of most green groups, and the true challenge that ‘deep green’ thinking represents to that status quo.
Someone needs to say this; not in terms of a stand-alone statement, but with extensive reference to the work of the many writers on Deep Ecology, and of course the wealth of academic research which defines why simple ‘reform’ cannot work:
If the environmental movement is failing that’s not because it lacks better evidence or public support. It’s failing because its methods and structures take the world ‘as it is’, rather than basing their calls for change upon a measured, empirical analysis of ‘what is necessary’.
Deep Ecology is a window into the types of change we need to make in the world. Yes, as Devall says in his essay, it is ‘utopian’. But just as mathematics simplifies the world with numbers so we can quantify it, the role of utopian philosophy is to be a framework for comprehending the world – and from that, creating a new way to organise it.
Of course, this is a really big ask: For everyone to realise that their lifestyle is destroying the world around them; and then to act differently, under a wholly different set of perspectives to those that guide ‘consumerism’ or ‘capitalism’. But this is where the ‘Utopian’ aspects of Deep Ecology allow us to think of very different approaches than presented by the – fundamentally reformist – environment movement.
One of those who fought against the transition to this model of economic exploitation of the land, when the modern British state and it’s imperial economic ambitions were first formed in the Georgian Era, was William Cobbett. As he said in his landmark work, ‘Cottage Economy’, published two-hundred years ago:
The doctrines which fanaticism preaches, and which teach men to be content with poverty, have a very pernicious tendency, and are calculated to favour tyrants by giving them passive slaves. To live well, to enjoy all things that make life pleasant, is the right of every man who constantly uses his strength judiciously and lawfully. It is to blaspheme God to suppose, that he created man to be miserable, to hunger, thirst, and perish with cold, in the midst of that abundance which is the fruit of their own labour. Instead, therefore, of applauding “happy poverty,” which applause is so much the fashion of the present day, I despise the man that is poor and contented; for, such content is a certain proof of a base disposition, a disposition which is the enemy of all industry, all exertion, all love of independence.
Cobbett's idea? Allow the people access to the land to support their needs for food and shelter. In books like Cottage Economy, Cobbett railed against land inclosure, the dispossession of the common land, and the worsening of working conditions for ordinary people as a result of both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions.
When the environmental movement was professionalised, ‘deep green’ environmental movement was often criticised for this idea of ‘self-sufficiency’ – labelled with disdain by the use of names (copied from right-wing criticisms of early environmentalism) such as, ‘hair shirt’.
But similar ideas to enable a more equitable and sustainable lifestyle were proposed in Cobbett’s time by groups such as The Chartists; and almost two centuries before that by The Diggers; and almost three centuries before The Diggers these ideas were first seeded in the English consciousness by Medieval Lollard radicals such as John Ball.
But if we take those ideas, and transpose them into the modern era, from Diggers, to Chartists, to Cobbett, what these movements were basically calling for was an ‘ecological’ framework to organise society – in opposition to the exploitative mercantile, resource-based economy that was being created at the end of the Eighteenth Century.
In England (as opposed to ‘Britain’, since each nation had its own similar movements), ‘deep ecological’ ideas have a long history. What has prevented their success has been the power of the first the land, and then the industrial lobby, which has sought economic and social policies which created completely the opposite kind of society. But their world is coming to an end now, as it must inevitable collapse as its expansionist imperative hits the limits of the Earth system.
In Deep Ecology, we find the same practical basis for how we might plan a new kind of lifestyle; building on the traditions of those historic movements that, for the last 800 years, have sought to create a state where the land, and the sharing of its produce, represents the core of society. Expressed through the ideas of Deep Ecology, the demands of those earlier land movements find new meaning in the world as it is today.
However, just as in the past, the establishment will not willingly release their control over the land – certainly not before they are forced to by changing circumstance as their economy collapses. But in their failure to address the ecological crisis they created, they have lost any moral or political imperative to govern our future lives.
Therefore we must plan, in advance of that, by taking the actions required to prepare for these events – and taking inspiration from those historic movements who sought similar ends – in order to create a national political economy based within deep ecological principles. That process must begin by re-skilling ourselves, and finding our own place within the natural world from which to consciously plan some future after the collapse of consumerism.
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