An antidote to our disconnect

15 December 2022
In this creative reflection, students Faith Roche and Alex Hoffman reflect on the failings of Western conceptions of nature and why we must embrace connection, chaos and reverence as we re-evaluate our relationship with the environment.

By Faith Roche, Sydney Law School/Faculty of Science, and Alex Hoffman, Sydney Law School/Faculty of Engineering

Looking for the universe to care has created the environment crisis. What if we need to care more about the universe? 

I The apparent indifference of reality 

We have felt for millennia that the world holds so many secrets. In the whispers of the wind, the sun-soaked horizons or the thunder of a stampede is an alien, deep knowledge. 

Starry nights, sweeping horizons and delicately textured clouds have ensnared our existential ponderings for eons. Mountain ranges are vast, yet diminutive against Earth, itself a grain against our sun. Everywhere, we see evidence of some hidden, profound knowledge. 

This scale and complexity continues to exceed human comprehension. When our consciousness probes the universe, we find only calloused apathy. Whether humanity is destroyed tomorrow or a tree falls in a forest unseen, the universe responds with indifferent silence. 

II Cultural memory of order 

The stories we have told ourselves through religion and science have been highly seductive, and they needed to be in order to make life a little bit more bearable. Science is more than just an explanation of physical reality. It offers the promise that the entire world can be known.

The value of science to human life is not disputed. It is incredibly useful for discovering physical processes and laws. However, we do dispute the normalisation of science as a total source of truth – it cannot fully explain the entirety of the human condition. 

III Consequences of building borders and breaking reality

Western culture emphasises narratives of progression. The idea that throughout history, humanity is always progressing towards some ultimate destination of perfection, order and rationality. That in our own lives, we are to continuously improve.

This has facilitated a failure to understand life is both connected and interdependent. When the universe refused to speak to us comprehensibly, human imaginings found solace by dividing the deafening silence into neat modular, and shamefully, hierarchical binaries: order, above chaos; culture, above nature; civilisation, above wilderness; mind, above body; secular, above divine; real, above spiritual.

Western culture emphasises narratives of progression. The idea that throughout history, humanity is always progressing towards some ultimate destination of perfection, order and rationality. That in our own lives, we are to continuously improve.

These divisions are a profound failure. How can you ever care about something that is not only completely alien, but also inferior to yourself? This is Manifest Destiny1 resurgent, wrongly characterising the human project as an imperial one, a never-ending struggle to control the Earth and optimise its resources as best benefits us. 

The trail of shattered pieces this breaking-up of the world has created is evident in history. 

Until recently, Western culture simply lived alongside a purely physical nature. It was unconscious, dead even; a plant was alive, but a forest was not. Nature was the wood of our cottages, the meat on our plates, and the rivers in our towns. Static, a default landscape littered with God’s gifts, all free for the taking. 

After the consequences of this unfettered extraction ripped through public consciousness, a narrative of ‘saving the world’ was born. Humans, as the superior emanation of life, had a moral obligation to nature. A duty of charity, much like the one felt towards the very poor or very ill. ESG branding, for all its strange, rationalistic flaws, became a solution. We could save Earth… 

… A noble pursuit, but given that we’re still laughing at how fucked we are2, clearly a lacking one. We’re certainly trying new ways of thinking – conceiving of nature as capital, for instance. Clever, yet dangerously reductive and still missing the point. 

The environmental movement does not lack information, it lacks love3. Somehow, we must coax ourselves and trust enough to enter a new4 phase with the Earth, if we dare: a reciprocal relationship. Move with the land, or the land will move you. 

V Antidotes to order5

Clearly there needs to be alternatives. We offer some, though they certainly aren’t the only ones. 

Firstly, we need to embrace chaos, to accept entropy. Disorder is a fundamental destination. Order and chaos swim together in the same tank. Plants grow from the dirt, drawing carbon out of the air and energy from the sun – and then they return to it. We eat them. We turn them into flyers which for a moment are printed on, share a message, and then they return to the dirt. Other cultures set a clear example in their acceptance of this way: Taoism embraces circularity in the Yin and Yang, there are yarning circles in Indigenous Australian culture, and Indian philosophies encompass karma and rebirth. Western tendencies need to completely unravel the fundamental assumption that order is the highest order. 

We’re certainly trying new ways of thinking – conceiving of nature as capital, for instance. Clever, yet dangerously reductive and still missing the point. The environmental movement does not lack information, it lacks love.

Secondly, human imaginings must become comfortable with divinity in some sort. To realise that the natural is divine, that divinity is in nature, and that both of these exist only by virtue of perceived, or imagined, and are therefore inseparable from human agency6. In another word, animism. Who logs a forest when they believe it is alive, and holy? We’re not the first to reaffirm the divinity of the natural world. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si or Islamic Hadith or Japanese Shintoism recognise the same. All that really is left, then, in light of these, is to recognise it ourselves. 

Thirdly, as flows from the second, reverence must play a larger role. From it, we will find substance to words like meaning, purpose, and relationship, and we will learn respect, love and find awe in the environment as more than simply a source of useful resources in human economies. Do away with the disconnect which makes it easy to turn living, breathing life into a commodity. A forest isn’t valuable because it has the capacity to be x amount of lumber, it is valuable because it is full of life and beauty. 

VI The stars cannot wonder about the stars 

Our generation never had an initial shock and anger to deal with – instead, we have become accustomed to a general malaise when faced with the prospect of our future. Growing up under the spectre of global climate disaster, it becomes difficult to be animated. Passion fades away to a bitter, depressed anxiety until there’s nothing left. So often, calls to action from the sustainability movement land unanswered, somewhere in the mess between jaded environmentalists and vehement climate deniers. 

But the Great Silence7 is deafening. Call us anthropocentric (can’t really be helped, to be fair), but there may well be something profound which emerges from the Universe’s difficulty in producing conscious life. We ought to recognise, following from this apparent indifference, that life as we know it may be may well be alone on the mote of dust8 we call Earth. Strangely, that confers to us a solemn duty to find a new way of living.

The Universe will never know how grand it is. It is only spectacular if there is something there to see it be so. As best we can tell, Earth’s inhabitants are the only ones observing (and recording) the universe. In essence, we are the waking universe looking back at itself.  

Let every breath in you love the wild, wily and indifferent landscape. For what it’s worth, we’ll do the same.

This article is part of the SEI Student Series on Climate Futures.

1. Refer to Steven E. Woodworth’s book, Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War for general reading on the topic. Darren Dobson’s article, “Manifest Destiny and the Environmental impacts of Westward Expansion” is also insightful.

2. Shout out to Ruby Fields for her song Climate

3. As expressed by Claire Dunn in Rewilding the Urban Soul.

4. *Very old, in Indigenous cultures. Classic move from the West. 

5. Sorry, Jordan.

6. Credit to Ivor Indyk, writing on David Malouf.

7. This refers to the Fermi Paradox.

8. Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot will never fail to drive us to existentialistically fuelled action.

Faith Roche is a second year LLB / B. Science (Environmental Studies) and is the 2023 Vice President of the Geoscience Society. Her interest in sustainable development and its intersection with Australia’s diplomatic ties to Asia brought her as a volunteer the 2022 Australasian Emissions Reductions Summit and motivated her to be Sustainability Secretary for St. Andrew’s College.

Alex Hoffman is a second year LLB / B. Engineering (CE) student. He has worked at the NSW Treasury, helping the NSW government build guidelines for discussing natural capital. He has an interest in ensuring engineered climate solutions are designed with human life as the centrepiece.

Header image: Mountain range via Shutterstock, ID: 624908471.

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