Loving the Living World

'The future of mankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives
and take up their responsibilities to all living things'

Vine Deloria Jr.

I have encountered vast numbers of people who described themselves as "nature lovers", but observation of their behaviour has often forced me to question the nature of that love. I do indeed know some wonderful people whose genuine connection with the living world is unmistakeable, but in far too many instances the professed love of nature has manifested itself rather differently.

Country walkers trampling through a ripe corn field rather than detour round the edge, because there is strictly a right of way across it. Parties of bird watchers stomping their way noisily to a hide, alarming every wild creature in the vicinity. Picnickers lighting fires or leaving their rubbish at the "idyllic spot" they visit. Uninformed enthusiasts deciding to "create a woodland" on some randomly chosen piece of open land without reference to the existing ecology. "Guerrilla gardeners" arbitrarily introducing domesticated plants into the natural landscape. Single-species obsessionals tampering with complex habitats in favour of the one animal or plant they prefer. All of them nevertheless genuinely convinced they loved this thing called "nature".

Such self-deception - believing one loves something one actually disregards, neglects or abuses - is potentially far more destructive than any honest lack of interest as it confers a false sense of certainty that is usually immune to evidence. I guess we are all guilty of it to some extent, but how does it arise? Is it exclusive to our relationship to the natural environment, or does it go deeper? I believe it does go very much deeper. Albeit unwillingly, I have come to the conclusion that our Western urban-commercial culture as a whole has lost touch with what loving something (or someone, for that matter) really means. For us, conditioned as we are by Hollywood, TV, pop songs and pulp fiction, love is a feeling that takes us by surprise. It strikes like a bolt from the blue, changing our lives without any contribution from ourselves. We "fall" in and out of it inexplicably and it is beyond our control to create it or preserve it. Its arrival, persistence and departure have nothing to do with appropriateness, compatibility or consequences. It is like unexpectedly being given an apparently unlimited supply of ice cream, only better - at least until the supply runs out.

Why do we subscribe to this, considering how often it lets us down? It's probably not intrinsic to individuals but results from cultural conditioning at societal level. I suggest that the unrelenting stream of crude sensory stimulation on which our consumption-driven Americo-European societies feed militates from our early years against the proper development of our more subtle innate perceptual talents. Unable as a result to look outward as clearly as we might, we remain emotionally much like small children - self-absorbed and demanding, seeking instant gratification with the minimum of effort. So we "love nature" in the same way we might "love" the unexpected ice cream, a favourite movie, or someone who lavishes attention on us - essentially as a source of personal pleasure. But that seems to me a rather one-sided kind of relationship to have with the living world that sustains our very existence.

If we are to minimise the damage we do to the living world in the face of our already vast and growing global demand for resources (and we must do so merely in order to survive, even if we cannot recognise any higher justification), each one of us will have to care for it in numerous small ways, constantly. We cannot devolve the responsibility on a small coterie of professionals, however dedicated. Regulation will not help much. Artificial segregation of "the countryside" from our general rapaciousness will not suffice, nor will isolated conservation projects. These are currently the best options we have, but they serve as little more than a sticking plaster - first aid for a festering wound. The ultimate cure for the wound must come from the hearts of us all. For this to happen we will have to learn a rather different way of loving the living world - a way most clearly expressed in our era by psychologist Erich Fromm, as '... a passionate affirmation of an "object" ... an active striving and inner relatedness, the aim of which is the happiness, growth, and freedom of its object.' 1

This kind of love is not an inward-looking feeling, but an outward-looking way of life - not an emotional by-product of careless taking, but an intentional conduct of careful giving. We should not be waiting for it to take us by surprise - we should be getting on with practising it. But to attain the inner relatedness it depends on we must connect more closely to the reality of its object, so our first need is to revive our atrophied perceptual talents.

We seldom realise that in our everyday lives the bulk of what we seem to experience does not come from the real world at the given moment at all. The subjective experience is built like a fragmentary jigsaw puzzle - mostly from pieces of heavily filtered past experiences that seem to fit more or less with the very little we have actually observed on the current occasion. This is all the more the case for those of us conditioned by busy, blaring urban surroundings to ignore as much as possible so as not to be swamped by "noise". But this puzzle-building often results in inappropriate emotional responses, triggered by potentially irrelevant past associations. For much of the time we operate as puppets, delivering conditioned stock responses to a limited range of crudely categorised stimuli. This behaviour has been assiduously cultivated by those whose commercial or political advantage depends on the predictability of our responses - as Neil Postman noted, '... almost all television programmes are embedded in music ... to tell the audience what emotions are to be called forth.' 2  But such automatic responses corrupt our perception of the present, so they form the first barrier we have to overcome if we wish to make closer contact with the real.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we should try to eliminate our innate puzzle-building propensity. We need it to provide an impression of stability in our everyday lives. Even though it is an illusion, it helps us deal quickly and efficiently with familiar situations. But it also interferes with experiencing the new. So although we must not abandon it entirely, we can and should take command of it. I am not alone in recommending this. It is presented in a somewhat garbled form as "erasing personal history", ascribed to Don Juan Matus, by Carlos Castaneda.3  Castaneda seems, however, to have been generally more interested in the details of technique than in intended results. So he seems to have taken the method described by Matus literally as a general procedure for everyone, rather than, as it more probably was, a specific set of instructions tailored for him as an individual, aimed at achieving a desired outcome. A couple of generations earlier, Freud also recognised that memories of past experience interfere with perception of the present. Even if his rigid culture-bound frame of reference, concentrating as it did on a narrow range of traumatic experiences, made this something of a truism, he was correct in advocating mastery over the continued influence of the past on our perceptions.

Although we should not to go overboard attempting to entirely wipe out past experiences on the lines suggested by Castaneda and Freud, we can nevertheless benefit hugely by learning to occasionally still the internal dialogue we habitually hold with ourselves - to silence the messenger that supplies missing pieces of the puzzle from our pool of past experiences. Stilling it voluntarily for a while allows us to connect more closely with reality by using more of the information from outside ourselves in the present moment to shape the current experience. That is the first step towards recovering our inner relatedness with the living world. Only once we have done so can we stop responding to it like automata. Instead, we will be able to recognise what we should do to serve its needs, thereby incidentally improving our own chances of survival.

So limiting our adverse effect on the living world cannot be left to the few. Each of us must learn to perceive its reality, discover its truths, and then act in accordance with those truths in the best interests of the mesh of life of which we are actually only a small if inextricable part. I believe such a course of conduct is what it really means to love the living world. The seeds of that love are within us all, inherited down the generations since the dawn of humankind. They germinate spontaneously once we can experience what is, rather than merely what we imagine to be. If we succeed, a joyous feeling of union with the living world may indeed take us by surprise - not as a deceptive bolt from the blue conferred regardless of our deserts, but as an emergent property of our continued, assiduous and well-directed efforts to serve it. But pleasurable though that emotion may be, it will only be a side-effect of fulfilling our duty to take up our responsibilities to all living things.


1 Fromm, E., Fear of Freedom, 1942

2 Postman, N., Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985

3 Castaneda, C., Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, 1972