A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Year Ahead

Can we cultivate a new relationship with the Earth?

By Michael Mountain

You don’t need ancient Mayan prophecies to know that things are going to be rough in the years ahead. Every day brings hundreds of new crises and calamities befalling the animals, the oceans, the forests and the atmosphere.

How can we relate to this?

When nations from around the world gathered in Durban, South Africa, a few weeks ago to coordinate efforts to protect the planet and our future, the end result, as usual, was gridlock hamstrung by politics and special interests.

Meanwhile, with a stalled global economy teetering on the edge of collapse, our leaders and representatives keep telling us that the solution is to “grow” our way out of the mess we’re in. But a growing number of economists are telling us that this is just not possible any longer. Very simply, there’s nowhere left to grow. We’ve cut down the forests, fished out the oceans and poisoned them, caused a mass extinction of animals, burned up fossil fuels that took millions of years to create, and poured the waste gases into the atmosphere.

Earth’s bounty, which seemed limitless, turns out to be very finite after all, and what remains of that bounty simply cannot sustain limitless growth to provide for seven billion-plus humans. (We’re even running out of that most basic of all resources: fresh water.)

In his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding, a former head of Greenpeace International who went on to become an entrepreneur and advisor to many Fortune 500 companies, outlines how we got to where we are and what’s going to unfold over the coming years:

“The problem is the delusion that we can have infinite quantitative economic growth, that we can keep having more and more stuff, on a finite planet. We cannot, and that is just a fact . . . Our current model of social and economic progress is now in the messy and painful process of dying. The only choices we get to make are how and when we change, not whether.”

Meanwhile, entire species of other animals are moving to higher ground, to cooler latitudes, deeper into the remaining forests, and to more remote regions of the ocean as they try to find places to live that we haven’t already ruined. More and more of them just can’t make it, so they go extinct

There’s no evidence that any of this is going to be addressed effectively by the powers that be. So the coming years can expect more extremes of climate, more wars as countries fight over essential resources like water and oil, more terrorism, more poisoned food, at least one major global contagion (probably several), and a continuing series of economic and financial collapses.

At the heart of the problem is our alienation from the natural world – the fantasy that we are a “higher” life form, uniquely endowed with qualities that separate us from other animals who exist primarily as resources for our continued “growth.”

Sooner or later, maybe, nations will act. (One of our saving graces as a species is that we’re quite good at coming together when faced with a very tangible emergency; just not so good at relating to it before the house is actually burning down.)

But we don’t need to wait for nations and governments to act. The most important change that’s needed is not so much a practical one; rather, it’s to do with our basic relationship to other animals and the world of nature. And governments and institutions are never going to lead the way on that.

That’s because at the heart of the whole problem is our alienation from the natural world – the fantasy that we are different, better, exceptional, a “higher” life form, uniquely endowed with qualities that separate us from the purely physical “dumb” animals whose purpose is to exist primarily as resources for our continued “growth.” As we struggle to tell ourselves how superior we are, more and more psychologists are telling us that our alienation from nature (and our own nature) isn’t just wrecking the world around us; it’s wrecking our inner lives, too, with escalating levels of depression, neurosis and other mental and emotional conditions.

The solution to the havoc we’re creating doesn’t lie in more of the much-ballyhooed “growth” that we keep hearing about. We don’t need more stuff. Quite the opposite, we need less of everything (and less of us humans, too). Once our basic physical needs are met with reasonable comfort, having more money and more stuff and more humans manically consuming it all simply doesn’t correlate with greater happiness.

All life is inter-related, so whatever we’re doing to each other, to the other animals and to the Earth, we’re inevitably doing to ourselves.

Instead, what makes for a sense of true contentment is having good relationships – with each other, with other animals, and with the natural world. So the very best thing we can all do, individually and together, is to start cultivating a new relationship with our fellow animals and the Earth.

That relationship will be grounded in respect for the lives and homes of all living creatures, and it will be rooted in the fundamental Golden Rule that reminds us to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated. That’s because all life is inter-related, so whatever we’re doing to each other, to the other animals and to the Earth, we’re inevitably doing to ourselves.

The more we understand this basic, age-old, intuitive way of living and start applying it in every aspect of our lives, the more things will start looking up again.

In the years to come, whatever else may transpire, to know that we’re part of nurturing a new relationship with each other and with the other living creatures with whom we share the planet will be a source of true peace and fulfillment – and the beginning of a new era.