The need for a new story

Last week in London, I had the privilege of meeting the theologian Martin Palmer. It was one of those encounters when after two hours, we obliged ourselves to continue another time, most likely over dinner, because this discussion could go on for many hours more.

Both of us strongly believe that there is something crucial missing in the conservation movement, that science and technology have taken the center stage, and that what is needed has been demoted to being insignificant. In a previous post, Conservation 2.0, I wrote how we must stop focusing on statistics and need to bring back a certain sense of mysticism and base our desire to change on values, and not just scientific reports. Yes science is good, as a tool, but not as the root of our actions.

Alongside this issue, I was glad to read two recent articles in the the New York Book Review, Age of Ignorance, by Charles Simic and Do We Need Stories, by Tim Parks.

Simic and Parks point out how our society (in this particular case, the U.S.A.) has glamorized ignorance, and embraced a shallow form of storytelling: “there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business”. Our society is filled with junk information. We live in an era of condensed opinionated “blips” of information, in which opinions are valued more than in-depth knowledge. Whomever shouts loudest is the one who will be seen as the expert. Facebook and Twitter are perfect tools for this type of narrative. News is reported in 140 characters or less, based on ever shorter attention spans. It is certainly not a lack of stories that is at the root of the problem, but a lack in the quality.

“Like” buttons will get you “involved” and grant you the title of being a “supporter” of pretty much anything. A cute image of a cuddly seal pup or any other baby animal will do wonders to attracted your attention. No need to know about the underlying studies, no desire to even question the statements made: a look into those big round eyes, suffices to form an opinion! We are gullible to anything that makes us go: “Ooooooh, how cute!” or “Arrrrgh, how gross!” Just look at what is popular on YouTube these days. “In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him.” says Simic

In his article Parks makes an observation that touches some of the issues regarding our perception of Nature.

“There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word “chair” is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials. But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit.”

Through our views based on science and technology, we have come to believe that nature is no different than a chair. We have stripped it of its sacredness and reduced it to a series of logical facts, from which we ultimately deduced – and finally claimed – our superiority. We have taken possession of the natural world by baptizing it with our taxonomy and putting it under our dominion. The next step was to personify nature, giving it a “Self”. Thus we have come to not only perceive ourselves superior to nature, but now we are making nature like us. This is really the world upside down.

Sadly much of the conservation and environmental community has been following this trend incessantly, dumbing down the storyline. No one wants to talk about values and mysticism, rather, they prefer to use climate-change scares or the plight of poor struggling creatures. The Anthropocene age has not only transformed the planet but also the stories with which we define our relationship with it. It would have been too good to be true if all our knowledge would have made us more humble, rather than haughty and if it had actually brought back the need for something sacred, instead of turning us into “Tweeting Gods”.

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2 thoughts on “The need for a new story

  1. Pingback: Science & Public Outreach « Extreme & Polar Islands Conservation

  2. Pingback: Science & Public Outreach |

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