“What on earth do climate change and environment have to do with people, human rights and what it means to be a person in a political world?” one person asked last month. “Why, when you have an interest in critical social theory, and in critical psychology, would you want to go out, stand by the water, and look at the waves? In a world where people struggle, what help could it possibly be to recognize the beauty of butterflies sitting on a log?” We live in a world where there is suffering, exploitation and oppression, this person said, and so why did I want to forget all of that?
I had to stop and think, not about why I want to watch butterflies, but about how to answer. I hadn’t made a sudden decision to take a break and stand at the water’s edge because I had given up on life. I just think about it differently. It’s been a slow process, one of learning and exploring, and it carries on from my old work, my old research and the thinking I used to do. It’s just that my explorations have extended out a little more, into new circles of awareness. What I used to think is not lost, but growing and evolving. I haven’t given up anything old, but old ideas have changed and transformed, as ideas often do.
My interest in people and environment first began with exploring what it meant to be an embodied person living in a political world. This extended to what it meant to be a person living in communities shaped by specific beliefs and norms. Sometimes, searching for what is normal or taken for granted in society means exploring the parts that are missing in the work that has already been done. It’s been about how to widen and deepen an understanding of what it means to be human. And I so started to read about heritage, story telling, history and the knowledge excluded from traditional history books. This history connected people to environment.
David Abram explains about story telling as a practice which stored knowledge from communities, passing it on to future generations. Credo Mutwa once said that to really understand ‘other’ people, it is important to get to know the stories told in a community. Stories are a form of intangible heritage which, when we learn about them, show a wider or deeper definition of what it means to be a person in the world. They can expand our belief systems or show us new things.
When I learned about story telling, poetry, dance and expression, it was a beginning of a different world view. This doesn’t mean that cultures of people see the world in identical ways, as much as it means recognizing that there are multiple ways of being within the world. And exploring them sometimes means that there are multiple ways of seeing, or, for me, waking up to the world around me, and how I interact.
David Abram explains that because story telling was connected to place, it was very often connected to life, land, animals and the cosmos as a whole, which interacted with the people who shared or created stories. Stories were connected to identity, land and what it meant to be a person living in a larger world full of other beings, or other imaginations. And they were connected to a sense of embodiment, of what it meant to be alive, and what it meant to be interactive.
As westerners, we’ve learned to separate mind from body, and self from society. We’ve learned to dominate rather than relate, and these are occurrences which have lead to the death of life, culture and the very world we need to nourish and maintain us. We’ve set up a way of being which exploits earth’s resources, causing resource wars and an unsustainable way of being for people and for earth. We can very often be destructive, without thinking, by living this way.
Many advancements and scientific discoveries are very helpful. It’s helpful to have medicine, and to not die of child birth or from tooth decay. Being inclusive doesn’t mean ignoring any specific form of knowledge or ways of being within the world, as much as it means widening and deepening our definitions of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a part of the human (and non-human) family.
And to me, it is about listening, deep respect for all voices, human and non-human. It’s also about awareness of our own power of insight. I’ve found that I work best when I’m able to listen and understand. This is partly because sharing and valuing our own insights brings a source of power, or a recognition of a voice for every person. It is party because I’m curious, and I like to keep learning. It is easier for me to ask questions, than to declare answers. It helps me to be reflexive, and to keep learning.
I think Rollo May has it right when he says that in the very moment we declare we have found freedom, that is the moment when we have lost it. Freedom means an ability to imagine, to explore new alternatives, and to keep searching for new ways of being within the world. And that comes down to our own habits and choices, as much as it comes down to decisions taken by power.
Imagination gives us the power to contribute, but as Rollo May explains, that imagination has to be grounded in reality, and in the world we wake up to seeing. To be free, we must be aware of destiny. But we don’t have to be nihilistic, accepting destiny while believing any contribution of our own is meaningless.
Activists take many paths. Some fight governments for political rights, as the TAC did in South Africa, winning a case for effective medical treatment for people with HIV. It’s a very valuable way of working, increasing a sense of democracy and political freedom. Other people, like Avaaz, or All Out, petition governments, and try to change harmful policies or events. I’m good at signing petitions, rather than creating them. I think they do a lot of good. I prefer to give time and space to exploration, listening and dialogue. It is the way I work best, and the way I feel most satisfied.
The focus on the connection between individual, community, earth and embodiment is the work I appreciate most, and the work which feels most worthwhile for me. I’ve found the value of imagination and insight breaks down divides, because no one person is cleverer, or more right than another. And each person has a space to have a voice.
I can understand that watching butterflies can seem meaningless, if it isn’t what you want to do. I can also understand that animals can be placed on a hierarchy over and above some people. I grew frustrated when I hoped for more information on the rights of people with intellectual disability, and all the local television channels would show were the rights of elephants. But people, land, heritage, sustainability and life as a whole are interconnected. The world belongs to all of us, not some of us, and perhaps by not dominating who gets to share or define what it means to be human people living on earth, alongside other beings, we can live more inclusively?