“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers
One of the biggest problems we have with conservation is that all our efforts are based on a principle of knowledge. We firmly believe that yesterday’s abuses were done because of a lack of understanding. The extermination of buffalos and wolves happened because we didn’t understand their crucial role in their surrounding ecosystems. The decimation of whales and seals in the 17th century was accomplished because we didn’t know there were not unlimited numbers of them. Since we consider ourselves the smartest species that ever existed, superior to the natural world precisely because of our ability and capacity for knowledge, we have come to the conclusion that our destruction of the environment was simply due to not understanding it. Therefore, in an attempt to change the individual’s behavior, conservation organizations have for decades based their strategy on amassing huge amounts of data on which they rely to promote their agendas. This concept might have been justified in the past but it is greatly outdated.
Our laws are based on values which our culture has deemed imperative to achieve a moral society. No one is allowed to kill. Child labor is forbidden. Rape is not accepted. Cheating is punishable. Stealing is condemnable, etc. All these moral values exist because they are within a value system that we have chosen, fought for, and voted upon. And most of them, if not all, have their roots in religion, not in science.
Technology has expanded our knowledge to such an extent, that we now count on it to solve absolutely everything. Combined with our belief that because we are so knowledgeable, we won’t be repeating the same mistakes again, we have blinded ourselves to the root of the problem. Knowledge is the Achilles’ heel of today’s culture.
For thousands of years, the natural world has either been seen as a giant basket of resources, or a savage world unfit for human society. It has become secular and empty of any sacredness. It has had no value besides being a means to feeding ourselves. We see the human species independent of all the others, at the top of the chain with only one purpose, to consume. Unfortunately, monotheism is greatly responsible for this. The idea that humans are a divine creation set the stage to a systemic problem. By putting Earth under our dominion, given to us by the Almighty, we see nature as a balance sheet. How can we maximize its output? The more we know, the more we will be able to reap from the natural world. While it is true that we must create a sustainable system where resources can be allowed to replenish themselves, for our society to change its perception of nature, the debate on conservation will have to stop focusing on information and data and make values its primary target. But how can we achieve such a thing?
The dialogue is extremely similar to Alain de Botton’s recent TED speech and in his new book Atheism 2.0. We know there is no God, that is alright, but we must aim for something better than a simple status quo on spirituality. In terms of conservation, we know our lifestyle has been absolutely unsustainable. We know the facts and have all the necessary data. Every new study always points out the obvious. But now we must progress to a new and more enlightened debate.
Conservation organizations have a lot to learn from religious institutions. Both are promoting their particular philosophy on life. Both are trying to convince people of a certain set of values. Religious groups have had tremendous success, while conservation organizations have been beating the stick for as long as we can remember. So what is the big difference? De Botton is quite right in explaining why this has happened. Religion starts with the belief that you are en eternal child, in constant need of reinforcement, with daily, weekly and annual rituals. Repetition is the key and messages are constantly repeated. Science and the conservation community, on the other hand believe that you simply have to publish a report and people will remember it forever. They believe that you only need to show the problems for the system to correct itself. They think of humans as rational beings capable of constantly making objective choices based on the information they have been given. In other words, Religion understands that we are emotional beings made of flesh and blood, while the other camp appear to believe we are walking brains.
In our modern society, consumerism and entertainment are the main religion. Why? Because all our rituals celebrate these two. We sit in front of tv together, we eat in front of tv together, we go shopping with each other, and the value of our economy is based on our purchasing power. We consume relationships “online” in the same way we consume food: fast, much of it, and easily. We are obsessed with our gadgets and possessions. And this is, what our children learn. As they spend so much time in front of the television, they understand from an early age what our priorities are. Advertising simply reinforces this dogma.
Where is nature in all this? It is certainly not sacred. It is certainly not spiritual. It is something less and less experienced. Where are our rituals with nature? At schools? I don’t recall being nature savvy a high priority on the curriculum. At home? When was last time you went camping or hiked through the wilderness? Instead, nature has come to be a battlefield, a distant and disconnected ideology, filled with data and information, under the blanket of more knowledge and better technology. And this is where most of the conservation organizations have decided to conduct their campaigns. People have become environmentalists rather than being naturalists.
With millions poured into conservation each year, we have to reassess the priorities. We need to invest in children, but not to make them aware of all the “nasty and bad” things humans are doing, but rather to help them experience and connect with nature, the wilderness, the untrodden path. We must make ecology mandatory in high school. We must develop some kind of dialogue where the sacredness of nature is developed and taught. Not as a beautified concept, where everything is rosy, but rather as the complex and dynamic system where each living being is interconnected with another and with the environment. If we want to alter the perspective children have of nature today, then we will have to put in place rituals in which they can feel nature as well as being constantly reminded of it.
“All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing.” Maurice Maeterlinck