Over at OnEarth, David Gessner has recently published a piece that hits close to something that I've been increasingly thinking.
When it comes to inspiring people to live in awe of nature, with reverence for all life, with a sense of never-ending wonder and desire for open-minded inquiry, environmentalism doesn't really cut it. Like the word 'sustainability' it's become a hollow word, a word divorced from meaning, a word lacking in soul, separated from its essence.
For me that essence consists of, more than anything, a love of nature, a love of exploration, a love of dirt, leaves, trees, water both rushing and stagnant, small stones and great rocks, a love of animals both human and non-human (a distinction that the English language unfortunately makes more concrete than the reality), a love of play, of recreation.
Which is where Gessner comes in.
After writing about his daughter's apparent wolf obsession, Gessner references David Sobel about the perils of what's become traditional environmental messaging (save this! stop this! even, save ourselves!) may backfire with children:
Children who are taught that the natural world is being destroyed, that the rain forests are being mown down, and that a boogeyman called global warming is coming, often tend to withdraw and distance themselves from nature. In fact, there’s no surer way to send them running for the TV or computer screen. “The natural world is being abused and they don’t want to have to deal with it,” Sobel writes, equating this with other types of abuse. As it turns out, a better way to involve young children, at least kids from the age of seven to 11, is exactly the way they used to involve themselves, before play became more structured and the woods off limits. Sobel writes of those formative years: “This is the time to immerse children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds. Constructing forts, creating small imaginary words, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, making maps, taking care of animals, gardening and shaping the earth are perfect activities during this stage.” Eventually, of course, they will learn about the death of the rain forests, but first comes a more direct, and playful, connection with the so-called environment.
I'm pretty sure that this applies to children of all ages actually.
But maybe part of the problem is that we're not children of all ages, in the sense that our sense of wonder gets dimmed, either through familiarity or what we perceive as the need to get serious in life, to get real (as if reality is real from only one perspective).
It also applies to those of us who've been diligently working away, in our own varied ways, in the environmental movement for years—even those of us who have tried, as we've consciously tried to do at TreeHugger to varying degrees of effect and frequency, to as Gessner says not start with shoulds or finger wagging.
"It starts with fun," Gessner writes. "It starts with building forts in our backyards, it starts with animal explorations. And, it goes without saying, it starts with pretending you are a wolf."
True enough. Though I think I might be more at ease pretending to be a cat or walking low slung gorilla-like. Try the latter sometime. It's fun. Lower your butt and spread your legs a bit while walking. It ends up being something like the behind the scenes footage from Lord of the Rings, with extras being taught to walk like orcs. And it really stretches your hip joints. But I digress.
The thing is, when it comes to starting with fun, I tend to think that we mis-equate fun and animal exploration as simply gawking at cute animal photos (as undeniably cute as they are sometimes) or daydreaming about some futuristic building concept that will never be more than a concept, often for very good reason.
It may sound exactly like the type of prescription that Gessner advises against, but I wonder if it's not, in that there's a big differences between fun and exploration, and what's essentially distraction from the darker aspects of all this, the doom and gloom.
When it comes to getting more people to reconnect with the world around them that haven't done so, and to do so in a present, conscious, aware and clear-sighted way, neither distraction nor doom and gloom are going to do it. Nor will trying to get them to be "environmentalists" (I'm not even sure I personally identify with that term any longer), nor will talking about enlightened self-interest, or the economic benefits of combatting climate change, switching to clean energy, or not chopping down forests because of the valuable ecosystem services those trees provide do it.
But what will work, I'm increasingly certain, is encouraging ourselves, our families, and perfect strangers, in our own way, childlike to more adult, to build those forts, search for treasures, follow streams and pathways, and make our own maps of inspiration and fascination. In cultivating this love of the world around us, this love of nature (which to me includes a love of humanity, necessarily) all these problems of "the environment" will, if not solve themselves, at least become all the easier to resolve.