When a child is born, there is a person, skilled in understanding and full of compassion, who attends to the birth and ensures a joyful outcome. We are about to witness a different kind of birth, or perhaps rebirth, of a culture and this article is about how we might nurture that process with all necessary skill and compassion. Human society is about to be transformed and this change is coming about because of what we call the ‘environmental crisis’.
Every human culture can be understood as an education of the conscience through shared imagination. The culture we share teaches us how to ‘feel’ about the world, the things we care about, the changes we are sensitive to. Look at our news media any day and you will see what we care about right now, the things that make us go ‘Whoa’ and ‘No’ and ‘Really’ and ‘I don’t believe it’.
This reveals a fairly strange hodgepodge of concerns, but one that emerges strongly today has to do with our relationship with the Earth. It is like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. We may have grown up with the idea that human beings could do whatever they liked. If there was a problem we could fix it. If there was a challenge we could invent our way out of it. Yet now something new is happening. The power of the Earth is becoming evident. We are having to recognise that we are absolutely dependent on the Earth as one great and powerful living system on which all life depends. This will usher in a new kind of culture, an Earth-centred culture, in which we come to feel our relationship with the Earth. And it will be a new day for humanity.
So how can we attend to this great change that is happening among us? How can we make the birth as painless as possible? How can we ensure that the culture that results is truly healthy?
First of all we need to recognise that this change is deep. It cannot be dealt with simply by tweaking our economic system, though serious economic change will surely result. It will not be solved by insulating our homes, though that is surely a vital step along the way. This change that we are experiencing is cultural, it is do with how we perceive the world and how our consciences are educated.
To find how to help with this we need to delve deep into human societies of the past and consider how they formed and were sustained. Traditional societies learnt, what I call, the art of creating shared imagination. This allowed very large groups of people to work together and could, I believe, be of vital importance to us today as we recognise the need to cooperate like never before.
In this article I will try to describe a new movement that could spread across the world and usher in the culture that we seek.
This movement is called Neighbourhoods for the Earth. Everyone has a neighbourhood. In China, Russia, Outer Mongolia. In Africa, India, Europe and UK, we all have neighbourhoods. With the rise of digital services in the so-called ‘developed’ world, the days of daily commuting and ‘dormitory’ towns are drawing to a close and neighbourhoods are once again becoming the primary social arena for many people. They are the place above all where we feel to belong, where we meet people face to face, spend time and build community. For this reason neighbourhoods are a great place to nurture something new. They are also relatively small, so the mainstream of ordinary people can meaningfully participate and feel included.
As I see it neighbourhoods are a bit like the bacteria which first colonised the earth. They are everywhere. They are numerous. And they are primordial, existing in human culture ‘underneath’ our politics, our leaders, our cities and our nations. As such they are well placed to shift our culture.
If we are to unlock this great change and bring a new culture to birth, then there are two simple practices, arising from the art of creating shared imagination, which we can use.
The first is to recognise the power of festival. Festivals have been the means par excellence all through human history for developing social cohesion and shifting our imagination. In traditional societies the festivals were often associated with the imagination of a higher power. In our day festivals can celebrate our relationship with the Earth, which is truly a higher power, but one now described for us by science. So, we inaugurate festivals in every neighbourhood on Earth that are focused on celebrating our relationship with the Earth. The word ‘celebrate’ is important here. The festivals can take many forms. Different peoples will want to express them in different ways and there will be a delight in hearing how communities interpret this, but we must celebrate. A festival is not a time for finger wagging. There is much going on that we should feel awful about, but this is not the moment. If we can celebrate, then we can hope and our hope will kindle our imagination of new possibilities for humanity in our relationship with all that lives on Earth.
The second practice is also associated with neighbourhoods. It is the setting apart of places out of the deepest respect for nature . We need to recover a relationship with nature and we can do that in our local area. Again, there will be many ways of doing this. Some of our cities are currently concrete jungles, where it seems like the only creature is human. Meanwhile our countryside can be so intensively farmed that there is no space for anything else, no hedgerows, few trees, or wetland, or even paths for us humans to walk down. The challenge is for every neighbourhood to recognise the potential for nature to flourish in its own local area and to nurture this. It is to designate spaces where nature has a priority, while humans draw back and interact only with great care, rather like a traditional society might treat something that it viewed as sacred.
Such setting apart of places for nature in our local community will not just help nature to thrive, it will change us inside. These special places will become, for us, a microcosm of the Earth itself, where we can learn lessons about our impact on nature and come to feel for that relationship.
This ‘Neighbourhoods for the Earth’ initiative could address three vital needs of human beings at this point in our history. It could help us feel our relationship with the Earth, as opposed to just knowing about the Earth. It could help us to engage the mass of ordinary people who feel overwhelmed by the problems we face. And it could allow us to work together across the world, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, creating a groundswell of support for positive change.
We are fortunate to be alive during one of the most important periods of human existence on Earth. Historians of the future will examine in minute detail how we came to be in our present predicament and what we did in response. There is no doubt that a difficult time is in prospect. Some of our young people are already aware of our situation and are struggling with eco-anxiety. Some adults are embracing a sort of nihilism, a hopelessness about the future, that can lead to weird conspiracy theories and even the denial of reality.
In contrast, ‘Neighbourhoods for the Earth’ could be a vehicle for hope, not to replace all the very worthwhile efforts at reform that are already going on around the world, but to undergird them and strengthen them with a new consciousness, uniting human beings all around the world in positive action, giving us all a sense that we can actually do something, and bringing to birth a new Earth-centred culture.
That is the promise. Now we need to make it real. We are, at the outset of 2022, just recruiting the first neighbourhoods to this movement. Each neighbourhood will apply their own imagination and insights into forming their festivals and setting apart places for nature and we will see what happens. It is open to anyone, or any group, that can, however tentatively, feel their way to enacting this in their neighbourhood. We will attempt to build a suite of resources to support this process, sharing good practice around the world, to inspire others. The initiative will remain community owned. There is no big organisation behind this and no big money. Each neighbourhood will be responsible for what they do.
Teaser photo credit: Wye Marsh. View from the bridge over the canoe channel. By Óðinn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2760942